Advocates Prepare to Press for Citizenship as Congress Leaves for Recess With Little Done on Immigration Reform

Rebecca Kaplan
National Journal

The day before Congress was set to leave for their monthlong August recess, a group of immigration-reform advocates gathered inside the Capitol with several hundred pounds of cantaloupe.

There were exactly 224 melons: one for every member of Congress (221 Republicans and three Democrats) who voted to defund the program that defers deportation for the children of illegal immigrants. The measure was offered by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and it angered advocates who want to see the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally receive citizenship. The choice of fruit was inspired by King too, after he said many young illegal immigrants were drug smugglers with "calves the size of cantaloupes."

"This cantaloupe was picked by immigrants in California," read a sticker on each melon. "You gave Steve King a vote. Give us a vote for citizenship."

That's the demand that will be echoed across the country during the congressional recess, as advocates press the House for legislation that includes a path to citizenship. Thursday's show of activism—which also included a protest and the arrest of 41 people who blocked Independence Avenue in a show of civil disobedience—is just a preview of what's to come.

When the Senate passed their version of comprehensive immigration legislation earlier this year, attention shifted to the more fractious House. It quickly became clear that the Senate bill was dead on arrival, and that the House would take up its own process, which would prioritize border security and favor smaller, targeted bills over a comprehensive approach.

Five bills have already cleared the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, which have jurisdiction over immigration issues. Just one—the Border Security Results Act, which requires the Homeland Security secretary to develop a comprehensive strategy to gain and maintain operational control of the U.S. borders—had bipartisan support. Four other bills that address interior enforcement, agricultural workers, high-skilled visas, and electronic employment verification were reported out of the Judiciary Committee on party-line votes over vocal objections from Democrats.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, both Virginia Republicans, are working on a bill that would address children brought to the United States illegally, and Republican Reps. Raul Labrador of Idaho and Ted Poe of Texas are crafting legislation dealing with temporary guest workers, a Republican aide said.

Some of the bills will likely come up after the August recess. Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, who authored the border-security bill, said his legislation could come to the floor in September or October.

"Ideally I think they'd want to do my bill and Chairman Goodlatte's enforcement bills, probably during one week," he said.

A bipartisan group of seven House lawmakers have been crafting a comprehensive bill for years, but have yet to release a product despite repeated promises they were close to doing so. "We have to try to line up votes," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a member of the group.

Many Hispanic and immigrant advocacy groups are unlikely to rest until they get a vote on legislation that includes a path to citizenship, which will be the focus of their efforts in the next five weeks. Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the director for civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza, said that 360 events are planned over the recess. The Alliance for Citizenship, a network of advocacy groups, lists a slew of events on their website, ranging from phone banking to town halls.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is a top target. With a 35 percent Hispanic population and significant agricultural presence in his district, advocates see McCarthy as their best bet at an ally in the House leadership. "He can do a lot to convince [House Speaker John] Boehner to allow a vote," said Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union.

Activists hope their demands for citizenship will be bolstered by the growing power of Hispanic voters at the ballot box. Among the many chants shouted by protestors during Thursday's rally was, "Republicans, remember: We're voting in November."

On Aug. 13, members of the Alliance will convene a caravan from Northern California down to Bakersfield, which lies in McCarthy's district, to press their case.

But Diaz-Balart expressed doubt those kind of tactics will change minds. "If the pressure is folks in a very methodical way trying to meet with people and talking about ways to solve the issue, that's helpful. If it's showing up in people's districts and threatening, all it does is harden people's positions," he said.

The Senate's "Gang of Eight" might have found a more effective strategy, which is trying to get the coalition of business, religious, and high-tech leaders that supported their immigration bill to engage members of the House.

"Everybody should be talked to by a farmer, everybody should be talked to by a high-tech guy, everybody should be talked to by various groups of faith," said antitax activist Grover Norquist, after a meeting with some members of the Gang of Eight earlier this month. "We'll win. It will just take a while."