Immigration reform advocates have tried being polite. They’ve staged acts of civil disobedience and warned Republicans the party will pay at the ballot box if they drag their feet on an overhaul.
But none of that has worked — so now, immigration activists are in all-out harassment mode.
n recent weeks, advocates have taken a decidedly sharper, more aggressive turn in their efforts to pressure lawmakers — primarily Republicans — on an immigration overhaul that would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in the country.
They stormed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) condo in Arlington, Va. They delivered reams of letters to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and dozens of other House Republicans from children of immigrant families. They’ve confronted Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) during breakfast at his favorite Capitol Hill diner and prayed on the doorsteps of his suburban Cincinnati home.
But, so far, the in-your-face strategy isn’t working. After the Senate passed the most comprehensive immigration overhaul in a generation in June, the effort has stalled. And the tough tactics are turning off key House GOP lawmakers whose support will be vital if legislation is to clear Congress.
“They’ve killed reform. It’s over. It’s dead. They killed it,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who favors immigration reform. “I begged them not to do crazy things, and they decided to be crazy. Now it’s dead. That’s what they get. It’s stupid. Why target the people who actually want to do reform?”
Backers of an immigration overhaul aren’t apologizing.
“They are refusing to move on reform; thousands of families every week are broken apart because of the failure to move,” said Kica Matos, a spokeswoman for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a coalition behind much of the strategy. “We are determined to see reform passed. So give us reform and we’ll go away.”
The latest example of the escalation in tactics came Monday, when advocates crammed into a small room in the Rayburn House Office Building, and young children came forward to tell stories of how the nation’s immigration laws have separated their families and caused emotional hardship.
For their finale, the children did a skit featuring Boehner as the “Grinch,” the Dr. Seuss character that has become a symbol for ruining holiday cheer. In their version, “Grinch Boehner” was standing in the way of uniting families.
“Mr. Boehner thought he’d done it, that he’d crushed all their spirits. That they’d no longer bother him, that he wouldn’t have to hear it,” the narrator said. “But the people were angry, and their love was too strong. They came back even stronger, they knew he was wrong.”
Then the young children proceeded to the offices of several House Republicans with letter-filled boxes that read: “Children’s Holiday Wishes” with a bright red “Denied” stamp. One missive to lawmakers, written by a 7-year-old named Danna, read: “You should not let the parents go back to Mexico because the kids love there [sic] parents so much. And if they go to Mexico kids well [sic] be sad.”
There have been some, albeit minimal, clues that immigration reform isn’t completely dead. Advocates and critics alike have noted that Boehner’s move to hire Rebecca Tallent — a former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — to advise him on immigration policy is a signal that House Republicans are still prioritizing reform.
Meanwhile, a small circle of House Republicans is quietly drafting a measure to legalize qualifying immigrants living in the United States illegally. That would work in tandem with a measure being written by Cantor and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that would establish a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
But the tiny glimmers at reform in the GOP-led House aren’t enough to satisfy immigration advocates, who have lobbied lawmakers all year to pass a comprehensive overhaul.
And Boehner has taken much of the heat.
Beyond surprising him at his favorite Capitol Hill breakfast joint and appearing at his home in West Chester, Ohio, they recently gave him a bottle of Merlot and a turkey to mark Thanksgiving. Both presents were harvested by immigrants.
At last week’s Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, dozens of children sang to the tune of “Jingle Bells”: “Speaker Sir, Speaker Sir, Don’t you let us down! Deportations hurt this nation, act for families now!” Two days later, activists camped outside Boehner’s personal office and sang, “We pray for Speaker Boehner” to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” according to a video posted by the group.
“Boehner is in favor of immigration reform,” griped one Republican aide. “Why don’t they harass someone who is not?”
It’s not just Boehner who is getting pestered.
Dozens of activists engaged in a loud protest late one Wednesday night, in the condo lobby where Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, lives, according to a report in the Washington Examiner. And a 9-year-old girl named Liz Marquez tried to confront Cantor as he was quickly making his way to the House chamber last week, according to a video posted by FIRM.
The letter deliveries on Monday were aimed at nearly 40 House Republicans, the vast majority being lawmakers whom immigration advocates see as ripe targets for reform, according to a list provided by advocates. They included Republicans such as retiring Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, who has expressed support for a pathway to citizenship; moderates such as Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania; and leaders such as Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“The longer Congress takes to take action on this, the stronger we get,” Sue Chinn, the campaign manager for Alliance for Citizenship, a national pro-reform coalition, said at a news conference Monday.
Some of those efforts have borne fruit — during one visit to the Capitol last week, youth activists got sit-downs with Republican Reps. Scott Tipton of Colorado and Michael Grimm of New York, organizers said. And activists have shown they are more than happy to embrace Republicans who back their cause.
Take the example of Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.). In October, he announced to much fanfare that he was signing on as the first GOP co-sponsor of a bill from House Democrats that mirrors the Senate legislation, minus its border-security provisions.
After that announcement, Denham was showered with praise from pro-reform groups, which launched a Thank You campaign in his honor. Support from Latino constituencies could help Denham — a top target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — in his reelection bid. His central California district is 40 percent Latino and went for President Barack Obama by 4 points in 2012.
The Senate legislation would establish a minimum 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, revamp both high-skilled and lesser-skilled immigrant visa programs and bolster security resources along the southern border.
House Republican leaders have long declared that they would not vote on the Senate legislation and instead chart out its own way that would entail taking up different parts of immigration reform with a collection of measures, rather than one comprehensive bill.
But many advocates are skeptical of the House GOP’s piece-by-piece immigration strategy, believing that the most politically difficult parts of reform — such as a solution for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States — could get left off the menu. There is essentially no chance that an immigration bill will be brought to the House floor this year — the chamber is slated to adjourn Friday — but GOP leaders have repeatedly said that they are committed to working on the issue.
As advocates plot their way forward, some are taking a less confrontational approach. For instance, a recent multiweek fast by reform backers on the National Mall attracted visits from President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and several lawmakers.
“There are some incredibly helpful people who … talk about the issue and they do in a very helpful fashion,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said. But of the harassment tactic: “Yeah, that’s not helpful.”
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