Faith, Labor, and Immigration Groups Push Congress for Reform

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The upcoming White House meeting is “an important first step” in advancing Obama’s promise of acting on immigration this year, says Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Washington D.C.-based Center for American Progress. New America Media – There’s a political window of opportunity open now for overhauling the broken immigration system.

But it won’t be open forever.

Leaders of the Reform Immigration for America (www.reformimmigrationforamerica.org) campaign, a broad coalition of religious, labor, and advocacy groups, say they’re urging supporters to keep the pressure on this summer. Last week, organizers briefed the ethnic media about the campaign during a teleconference organized by New America Media.

Whether it is through signing on for “action alerts” on the campaign’s website or through a text messaging service (one signs up by sending the word “justice” to 69866), organizers want supporters of reform to be heard now. It is a crucial time in the immigration wars, because President Barack Obama has called for Republicans and Democrats to discuss immigration legislation at the White House June 17, though that date might be pushed back.

Gearing up for this impending face-off on immigration, over 800 immigration advocates from 36 states gathered in Washington D.C. for the official launch of the reform campaign on June 3.

A fax-writing effort organized by these advocates has already managed to deliver some 137,000 faxes to leading lawmakers, urging them to move quickly to revamp the immigration system, says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

Never before has the pro-immigration side managed a comparable blitz on legislative offices, he said.

Clergy members also are involved, organizing prayer vigils, ministering to immigrant detainees and their families, or simply taking a stand in favor of reform.

“You will likely see faith leaders speaking out as immigration moves to the front-burner,” says Greg Chen, director for legislative affairs at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The upcoming White House meeting is “an important first step” in advancing Obama’s promise of acting on immigration this year, says Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Washington D.C.-based Center for American Progress.

But, she adds, “a meeting is not a bill, so we still have a long way to go.”

The expectation is that the meeting will be a first step in identifying common ground on immigration on which Republicans and Democrats can begin building a politically viable overhaul.

Despite their desire to build on the momentum they created with the campaign launch, the reform advocates warn that it is a mistake to act as if 2009 is the only year this can happen.

“I would just reject that there is not a coupon that expires Dec. 31st,” says Kelley.

Even so, Kelley does acknowledge that halfway into 2010, with midterm elections approaching in Congress, it may become politically difficult to convince lawmakers to go out on a limb on immigration.

That means there’s still a year’s time of ostensibly fertile political ground in which to push for immigration reform, advocates say.

They also admit immigration is perhaps not as high a priority as two other items on the president’s radar – namely, health care and energy. But it appears there may be space for it in the legislative agenda later this year, perhaps after the mid-October deadline set for a new health care plan. Kelley compares the broken immigration system to “a pothole” that would be roadblock on all kinds of issues.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has said he hopes to get immigration reform through before the end of 2009.

Reid says he favors a plan that includes a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in this country, but that he also favors a guest worker program. Not all advocates of comprehensive reform or a legalization plan support a guest worker program.

Despite any divisions, there does seem to be real momentum. One important difference between this year’s efforts, and past attempts (like the failed McCain-Kennedy bill) is the unified support from organized labor, including the two dominant collectives: the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.

“We refuse to accept this notion that immigrants are the problem with our economy,” says Esther Lopez, director of civil rights and community action, United Food and Commercial International Workers Union.

Since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan granted legalization to some three million undocumented immigrants, immigration law has focused on clamping down on the border and ramping up immigration raids.

Occasionally, certain groups, Nicaraguans and Cubans (for political or humanitarian reasons), were granted concessions so that immigrants from these countries could get around visa quotas and backlogs.

But it has been mostly a get-tough approach and it has had an unintended side effect, Kelley said.

It reduced the effect that immigration experts call “circularity,” which is the ability of immigrants to go back and forth between the United States and their country of origin.

The result was an exponential increase in the undocumented immigrant population on this side of the border, she says, since it became too risky to leave the United States once one had entered.

The failures of past decades hold one central lesson, she argues. Piecemeal approaches don’t work. Immigration reform requires a wholesale solution.

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