Immigration reform fight continues amid Syria debate

Pro and anti-immigrant groups have spent the month of August lobbying hard. But the question now is whether the Syria situation and the threat of a new partisan war over the debt ceiling will derail immigration reform efforts.

The summer congressional recess saw a make or break effort to win over members of the House of Representatives to support immigration legislation that would allow for the legalization of most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. There is not, as yet, such a bill in the House. A bipartisan group of seven House members has been working on developing one, but it won’t be presented until sometime in October.

Nevertheless, immigrants’ rights and labor activists have been visiting House members in their districts, with the hope of moving enough of them so that immigration reform legislation can get the 217 votes needed to pass. The vast majority of the 201 House Democrats are willing to vote for some sort of reform legislation, but not all. Most of the 234 Republicans are not supportive of legislation that legalizes the undocumented, and especially that also creates a path to citizenship for them, but activists think that they have convinced enough of them to get a majority vote.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner says that he will not allow legislation to advance unless it has the support of the majority of Republicans. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is hostile to immigrants’ rights and therefore likely to try to keep any legislation bottled up in committee. If they remain intransigent, the only way to get a bill passed would be to demonstrate that there are at least 217 votes in favor, in which case a “Petition to Discharge” might be used to bring the legislation directly to a vote of the whole House.

Meanwhile, personnel changes in the Department of Homeland Security are raising new questions. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Director John Morton have both resigned. Both have been sharply criticized by immigrants’ rights activists, because under their watch the number of immigrants deported from the United States has reached record levels.

Permanent replacements have not been named. On an interim basis, Morton has been replaced by John Sandweg, a former criminal defense attorney and Homeland Security functionary said to be close to Napolitano. Right wing politicians and media have jumped on Sandweg for defending murderers and sex offenders, the implication being that will mean he will be soft on illegal immigration.

But whether there can be any progress on the immigrants’ rights legislative picture is now placed in doubt because of two factors: The Syria situation, and the possibility of a new partisan confrontation about the national debt ceiling

These things are likely to distract the attention of the politicians and the public away from immigration. Worse, the Syria situation threatens to create splits not only in the Democratic Party, but among more progressive Democrats whose energetic attention is essential to get immigration legislation done.

The announcement by President Obama that he is going to order military strikes on Syria, and his agreement that Congress should vote on the issue, have created some very strange alignments. Leading figures in the congressional fight on immigration appear to be divided on whether to support the Syria intervention. At this point, a large proportion of House members have not declared themselves, but in the coming days the government is going to make a strong pitch for support, while campaigns against the planned intervention are also cranked up.

If immigration reform legislation fails, activists promise to ramp up their demand that the government decide at the executive level to stop deporting people until a new legislative initiative can be mounted. And some in the immigrants’ rights movement are now saying that the legislative effort should be scrapped entirely, because of the many negative elements that were introduced in the Senate Bill, especially outrageous new control measures at the border and internally. The idea is to forget about legislation for the time being and concentrate on pressuring the Obama administration to stop deportations. The administration has taken some steps in this direction. It has suspended the deportation of many young people brought here as minors, has instructed ICE to prioritize only people who have serious criminal records for deportation, and has made it easier for U.S. citizens to get legal status for their undocumented spouses.

However, large numbers continue to be deported anyway, most of whom represent no danger to society. Families continue to be split up with the breadwinner deported and the family members who remain in the United States left destitute. And immigrants keep coming, especially from crisis-wracked Central America.

Whether the Obama administration will be willing to stop deportations in the absence of a live legislative vehicle in Congress is an open question. Most of the immigrants’ rights movement and its labor allies, therefore, are still going to try to get legislation passed.

Photo: An immigration reform protest in Miami Aug. 16., trying to engage U.S. citizens in the immigration reform debate to obtain their support with visits to homes and small business. They are looking to mobilize the community to ask leadership from Republican congressmen at the House of Representatives to approve immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. J Pat Carter/AP




Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.