SAN FRANCISCO – About 40 leaders of immigration reform advocacy organizations were arrested Thursday on Capitol Hill. The group was there as part of a protest aimed at pressuring the House GOP into passing an immigration reform bill with a pathway to citizenship.
Taking a page from young undocumented immigrants, or Dreamers, nine of whom were arrested along the Arizona border last week, the veteran activists blocked traffic along a street adjacent to the Capitol while chanting a slogan popular among Dreamers: “Undocumented, unafraid!”
The action came a day before Congress members leave Washington, D.C., for their August recess. It kicked off a series of demonstrations, town hall meetings and events that are being planned by immigrant rights advocates during the month of August.
The goal, according to Angela Kelley, vice-president of immigration policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, is to use the August recess to gain so much momentum in support of immigration reform that “when they come back, there’s an air of inevitability” around settling the issue.
“I’m actually more confident than I’ve ever been that our movement is poised to win that argument [for immigration reform] in August,” Kelley said Thursday in a national ethnic media telebriefing organized by New America Media.
Women taking the lead
Wida Amir, who oversees the immigrant rights program at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), was born in Afghanistan and came to the United States when she was 16. Her mother, a widow, had to make “the hardest choice anyone has to make,” to pack up her kids and leave her country during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s.
“Immigration reform is something I feel very personal about,” said Amir. “It’s a life mission.”
Women make up 51 percent of immigrants in the United States, yet “a lot of our current immigration laws do not necessarily include them,” according to Amir.
For example, under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, immigrants were required to provide proof that they were working – yet the majority of women hold jobs in the informal economy, from domestic care to nail salon workers, she said. Women also primarily come to the United States through family-based visas, Amir added, which have caps and backlogs that can be up to 20 or 25 years in some Asian countries.
NAPAWF director Miriam Yeung was among those arrested in Thursday’s protest at the Capitol. The organization, part of the We Belong Together campaign — which aims to bring more focus to the issue of gender in the immigration debate — helped bring hundreds of women leaders from 25 states to a March hearing held by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) about the impact of immigration reform on women.
LGBT leaders: This is our fight, too.
The Supreme Court’s June decision to repeal a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) allowed foreign nationals to petition for legalization through a same-sex spouse for the first time.
But, according to Dave Montez, acting director of GLAAD, the DOMA ruling is just the beginning.
“Immigration is an LGBT issue,” Montez said. His organization is part of a coalition of about a dozen LGBT organizations, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Equality Federation, that are working for immigration reform.
“The Supreme Court ruling only impacts about 10 percent of undocumented LGBT immigrants in the United States,” said Montez.
Of the estimated 267,000 undocumented LGBT immigrants here, only about 30,000 are in binational relationships.
“The other 90 percent are not … so they would need a path to citizenship,” he said. “The work for the other 90 percent still has to continue.”
Pressure from the right
That effort may have found an unlikely ally. Kelley says the House’s movement on the DREAM Act alone is a sign of a “sea change.” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) — who both voted against the DREAM Act — are now working on a Republican version of the bill.
Even though KIDS Act, as the bill is called, “doesn’t do enough,” Kelley says the move signals a change in Republicans’ stance on immigration reform.
But a divide within the GOP remains. House member Steve King (R-Iowa) recently suggested that many Dreamers were drug smugglers, while Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told his constituency at a town hall meeting that there would soon be a House bill to legalize undocumented immigrants.
Pressure for reform, however, is also coming from leaders in the business and faith communities.
Last week, two separate letters were sent to House Republicans calling for reform. One was signed by more than 400 leading businesses and chambers of commerce, the other by more than 100 Republican donors, including GOP strategist Karl Rove.
The letter from GOP donors argued that Republicans need to be seen as taking action on immigration reform for the good of their party:
“Republicans ought to be welcoming immigrants and be seen as doing so. We firmly believe that with meaningful action on immigration reform, there is opportunity for both good policy and good politics for Republicans.”
Faith communities also have a powerful influence on the GOP, says Kelley.
Conservative Evangelicals, for example, have been an active voice for reform as part of the Bibles, Badges and Business campaign organized by the National Immigration Forum.
According to Kelley, a top democratic Congressional leader recently told her organization that the faith community was “more important than anything” in pressuring the GOP to act on immigration reform.
A recent CBS poll released on Monday found that seven out of 10 conservatives are willing to accept a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants with conditions.
The month of August, activists and advocates agree, will be critical to seeing whether that happens and if, as Kelley says, they can “win the narrative” on immigration reform.