Advocates of immigration-law changes are prepared to track down lawmakers doing household chores during the month-long congressional break that begins next week if that’s what it takes to get their voices heard.
“If you have a town hall or if you don’t, we’re going to find you in the grocery store because this is it. We’ve never been this close,” Representative Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat and one of the chief immigration negotiators in the House of Representatives, said in an interview yesterday.
Opponents of an immigration overhaul are equally ready. At Representative Karen Bass’s two-hour town-hall meeting last weekend in Los Angeles, about a dozen small-government Tea Party activists stood among the crowd of 300 to question the wisdom of legalizing undocumented immigrants.
“The problem with my town hall was making sure the opponents could speak without being denounced by all of the supporters in the room,” the California Democrat said.
Both sides are bracing for the unexpected as lawmakers prepare to leave Washington for home. August is typically a time for them to hold public forums and talk to voters -- a tradition that became more complicated in 2009, when town halls erupted with Tea Party members blasting President Barack Obama’s health-care legislation.
This year, immigration could be a flash point, which supporters of change worry could intimidate lawmakers and stall action in the House. The Senate on June 27 approved on a bipartisan vote of 68-32 legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, more worker visas and stricter border security. Leaders of the Republican-controlled House have said they will pursue their own proposals, possibly when they return to Washington in September.
Although polls show public support for a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented -- the stickiest immigration issue -- some House Republicans are reluctant to take up the issue for fear that it will entice anti-immigration primary challengers in next year’s elections. A June poll for Bloomberg News found that 74 percent support allowing immigrants living in the country illegally to become citizens if they pay fines and back taxes, wait more than 10 years and don’t have criminal records.
To avoid political risk, some Republicans leaders are suggesting members change the subject. An August planning document by Washington State Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairman of the House Republican Conference, suggests coming problems with the health-care roll-out and “stopping government abuse” as town-hall topics.
Leadership aides say they are briefing members this week on how to respond to questions about immigration if they arise at public events next month, said a person familiar with the strategy who wasn’t authorized to talk publicly about it.
Without specific House legislation on immigration, it’s difficult to predict how this August will unfold. Groups on both sides of the issue say they are eyeing as many as 90 House Republicans whose positions aren’t entrenched. So far they’ve cataloged 30 or so public appearances to attend.
“We expect to be mobilizing daily,” said Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that claims 2 million members and opposes the Senate bill.
Unions, business and technology groups, and evangelicals have similar plans in support of revising the law. Advocacy groups including the Mark Zuckerberg-backed FWD.us and Organizing for Action, Obama’s former campaign-turned-activist network, will spend the month calling and visiting members and using social media to maintain momentum for immigration legislation.
Today, the pro-Democrat group Americans United for Change posted a website devoted to tracking congressional public events in August. Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the group and a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said his allies will try to show up -- often with video cameras -- whenever a Republican House member is in public. They’re not limiting their efforts to representatives they consider “gettable” on immigration, he said.
“We’re not just trying to influence individual members, we’re trying to create a national narrative about the Republican Party,” he said.
Democratic Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Tom Harkin of Iowa will travel to Ames, Iowa on Friday for an immigration forum. That’s the home district of Representative Steve King, a Republican who recently said there are more young immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes” moving drugs into the country than there are young immigrant valedictorians.
Republican Senator John McCain, who helped write the Senate immigration plan, said he will hold meetings in parts of Arizona represented by four Republican House members who haven’t embraced a comprehensive measure.
“If we can galvanize our broad coalition to make this the highest priority and that they start talking to their elected representatives if we can do that, then I think you may see a favorable outcome,” McCain said this week at a lunch sponsored by Bloomberg Government. McCain and Becerra also pushed immigration yesterday at an event sponsored by the AFL-CIO in Washington.
Members of Congress also will head into the break with fresh reading material.
About 400 businesses and organizations favoring a rewrite of immigration laws signed a letter yesterday to House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi that said “failure is not an option.”
Dan Turrentine, vice president of government relations at TechNet, a Washington-based group of CEOs that advocates for immigration revisions, said the letter was timed to remind lawmakers about “the cross-section of support for reform as they walk out the door and start interacting with their constituents.”
Also yesterday about 100 Republican donors and fundraisers sent letters to the House saying that doing nothing on immigration amounts to “de facto amnesty.”
“By itself, hearing from us isn’t going to move the dial,” said Fred Malek, a longtime Republican fundraiser who signed the letter and is on the board of directors of the super-political action committee Republicans for Immigration Reform. “But with what we hope they hear from their constituents next month and advertising, we hope it adds up to make a difference.”
Representative Bass predicted House members would hear more in August from voters about health care than immigration.
“The problem with doing town halls on immigration is that we don’t know exactly where it’s going,” she said.
That’s if there are town halls at all.
Still stinging from the August 2009 groundswell of opposition to Obama’s plan to rewrite health-care laws, legislators are reluctant to publicize or even schedule public interactions. A survey from August 2011 by the bipartisan group No Labels showed that 60 percent of lawmakers didn’t hold town halls that year.
Lawmakers have tried to eliminate the free-for-all of August public interactions by holding “town halls” by telephone instead of in person.
Grover Norquist, founder of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform and a supporter of legalizing undocumented immigrants as part of a comprehensive measure, said memories of 2009 could work to advance immigration legislation in the House.
“People will come back and say, ‘This wasn’t as bad as I thought,’” he said. “People’s memory of what an aroused public looks like is 2009, 2010. Opposition to Obamacare was beyond intense. You’re not going to see that -- not in opposition to immigration reform.”
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