The Year in Immigration: High hopes, but no movement on reform

Pressure's mounting on lawmakers; 2014 could be year long-term plan is finally pushed through

Families continue to be pulled apart while Congress delays action on immigration reform.
John Moore/Getty Images

For immigration reform, 2013 will go down as the year that wasn’t.

Advocates for a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system that would create a path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented were full of hope and confidence when the year began.

President Obama had just been reelected to a second term, partly thanks to support from Latinos, Asians and other immigrants. There was hope Republicans would see value in tackling an issue foremost on the minds of this key segment of the electorate and, as polls are showing, something almost two-thirds of all Americans support.

Confidence was boosted in June — the high point for reform supporters — when the Senate passed a comprehensive plan, 68–32.

It was not the package they had hoped for — it included a 13-year wait for citizenship, for example. And border communities were not happy with the plan to double the number of border patrol agents. But it included provisions they had fought for — such as increased levels of labor permits for high- and low-skilled workers, and the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented youths who immigrated as children with their families to the U.S. a way to apply for permanent residence in five years, regardless of their current age.

The momentum was there. But then came the escalation of the conflict in Syria, budget battles, a shutdown of the federal government because of a budget standstill and, to top it all off, the problem-plagued health care reform rollout to provide health insurance to every American.

All of these issues dominated the debate in the House of Representatives at the expense of immigration reform. The Republican-controlled House does not support the Senate plan and was not eager to put the issue on the front burner.

Pundits were quick to pronounce the movement dead for the year. At the same time, the Obama administration supported enforcement of tough deportation laws that resulted in a record 410,000 deportations last year and 369,000 in fiscal year 2013 riled.

While Obama supports legislation that would give the undocumented a way to become citizens, he has embraced strong enforcement of border control laws in hopes of gaining support from conservatives. He did, however, defer deportations for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. More than 400,000 were granted deferred action under that program, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Infuriated by these numbers and by the standstill on the reform front, immigration advocates turned up the heat on Congress and the White House by launching a Fast for Families protest.

Just last week, protesters went to more than 200 congressional offices on Capitol Hill and chanted “We Shall Overcome” and “Si se puede” (“Yes we can” in Spanish). Others marched from the National Mall to the Fast for Families community tent 130 yards from the Capitol. Among them was Rudy Lopez, senior organizer for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), who fasted for 22 days.

Congressional leaders Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., spoke at the event and pledged their support. Earlier, New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and the recently elected Cory Booker, both Democrats, said they would fast for one day in solidarity.

The fight for immigration reform has created unlikely coalitions — big agricultural industries, religious groups, environmentalists, farmworkers, Republicans and Democrats. PICO National Networks’ Campaign for Citizenship organized bus tours ferrying immigrant families to the local offices of 12 members of Congress until they agreed to meet with them. There have been sit-ins, picket lines and marches.

These forceful tactics are a sign of things to come in 2014. In a year of mid-term elections, advocates face a tight window of opportunity to get Congress to tackle such a thorny issue. Obama can also expect enormous pressure.

Immigration rights groups figure they have four to six months to get action from the House and they pledge to continue to turn up the heat. The fasting movement will continue through next year.

Advocates vow that elected representatives who are not in support of immigration reform will have to answer for it in 2016, when all 435 seats in the House and 34 of the 100 in the Senate will be contested.

In the meantime, California expanded the rights of undocumented immigrants, allowing them to obtain a driver’s license and in-state college tuition. More than a dozen states now grant in-state tuition to undocumented, including New Jersey, run by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

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