Immigration Supporters Grow Impatient With Obama

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Pro-immigration activists are planning a massive protest on Sunday in the nation's capitol. Organizers are demanding an overhaul of the current immigration system and say they are fed up with the Obama administration's failure to act on their behalf. The president's campaign promise was to implement what he described as "comprehensive immigration reform" during his first year in office. Host Michel Martin speaks with Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Of course it's St. Patrick's Day, and what better way to celebrate than to hear from an Irish-American hip hop artist, Everlast. Remember this one?

(Soundbite of song, "Jump Around")

Mr. ERIK SCHRODY (Hip Hop Artist): (Rapping) Jump around. Jump up jump up and get down.

MARTIN: In a few minutes we'll hear from the lead rapper from House of Pain.

But first, pro-immigration activists plan a massive protest this Sunday in the nation's capitol. Organizers are demanding an overhaul of the current immigration system and say they are fed up with the Obama administration's failure to act on their behalf. In a sign of just how much anger there is on this issue, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a longtime and staunch supporter of the president, has promised to vote against the Democrat's health care overhaul bill in retaliation.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): I will not vote for the bill unless the White House begins to address the immigration issues both within the context of the bill and outside of the context in the bill.

MARTIN: We're scheduled to speak with Congressman Gutierrez later in the week, but we're joined now by Ali Noorani. He's the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. That's a bipartisan group that has been advocating for immigrants and an expansive immigration policy since 1982. The group is one of the lead organizers of this weekend's march. He's with us now in our studio. Welcome.

Mr. ALI NOORANI (Executive Director, National Immigration Forum): Thank you.

MARTIN: Why a march? And part of the reason I ask is that as you know, of course as you remember in 2006, there were massive immigration rights marches or pro-legalization marches around the country, in major cities around the country. Not a lot of evidence that it moved the dial on the issue. So, why a march and why now?

Mr. NOORANI: Well, in 2006, millions came out for peaceful rallies and supported immigration reform. But, also in 2006, and even in 2008, millions of people went to the ballot box. So the politics of immigration reform has fundamentally changed so that now both Democrats and Republicans realize that they represent a voting constituency that cares about immigration reform.

So, on Sunday, on the 21st, tens of thousands representing millions and millions of voters, who both are looking at Democratic as well as Republican candidates, are coming to remind the president and members of Congress of the promise that they made when they were running for election in 2008.

MARTIN: Almost since the day he took office, President Obama has been criticized by one group or the other for taking on too much or not taking on the particular issue that they think he should be prioritizing. He has chosen to focus on health care overhaul plan. This is a critical week for that.

Mr. NOORANI: Right.

MARTIN: I think what I'm asking you is, you know, are the politics there to add another high profile priority to this administration's plate right now, however important.

Mr. NOORANI: Well, I was in this meeting last week with the president when he met with several immigration reform advocates and I saw the pain and the frustration on his face as he was hearing from the faith community and labor and advocates of why this issue needed to be addressed. But I also think that it's important that the White House has realized that they can't move any issue on their agenda unless they get immigration reform off the table.

Health care, remember Joe Wilson screamed at the president, you lie, about immigration issues within health care. Job issues gets saddled by immigration. So there's actually an imperative or an opportunity for the president to say, okay, let's fix the immigration system. And then, you know what? The rest of my agenda, I don't want to say it becomes easier, but it becomes something that's actually focused on the issue at hand instead of the opposition saying, oh, health care is for immigration, immigrants, or jobs are for immigrants.

MARTIN: But isn't it already too late for that?

Mr. NOORANI: I don't think so. There are a lot of...

MARTIN: I mean, they're already into the first quarter of an election year.

Mr. NOORANI: Absolutely not. When we have been talking to Senator Reid and Senator Schumer and others, they see and we agree with them that there is a window of opportunity where the Senate and the House can come together and say, you know what? This is bipartisan legislation. This is the only thing that has bipartisan leadership and let's just get it done.

MARTIN: We recently reported on data from the Department of Homeland Security that says that the number of unauthorized immigrants in this country is actually dropping, that that actual number has dropped by something like 800,000 people. Does it undercut the idea that reform is an urgent matter? Because, in fact, some people are self-deporting.

Mr. NOORANI: People are leaving the country because our economy is in a mess. And Americans are feeling a lot of anxiety and stress because our economic situation is so bad. But the question is, how bad does our economy have to get to actually fix the immigration system? When our economy eventually turns around, we're going to need a functioning immigration system.

MARTIN: Is there a specific platform that you'll be advancing at this march?

Mr. NOORANI: So there's two demands that we're making on Sunday. One is immigration reform for new Americans. We require those who are here undocumented to register for legal status, to pay taxes, to study English and then get on a path to citizenship. Second is that we have a security system that keeps our borders secure and our interior secure. Third, is that we have a functioning future flow system, so that future work immigration is based on labor needs, so that when our job market reaches a point where we need workers, we actually have a system - an immigration system that can serve that need.

And then finally, we have to be able to preserve, really, the essence of who we are as a country, and that's family immigration. That means that a mother or a father can sponsor their child.

MARTIN: Youre claiming that youre not really in favor of an unrestricted immigration policy.

Mr. NOORANI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But its a very expansive immigration policy. And what do you say to those who argue that this is exactly the kind of thing that continues to depress wages, particularly for less educated workers, and that that just as a failure to recognize the impact on native-born citizens and workers because of a romantic notion of what this country is, it maybe rooted in the, you know, the last century but isn't appropriate today. And that may be a hard thing to hear for someone who has a different perspective but that is a deeply held belief of a number of people obviously, by evidence of the fact that immigration reform is as controversial as it is.

Mr. NOORANI: The status quo of a broken immigration system leads to all of these feelings that immigrants are here to do bad things, steal job, cause harm, etcetera, etcetera. But the fact is that the status quo of a broken immigration system actually wounds American workers more than anybody else. So we have spent so much time over the last 10-20 years to raise the minimum wage. And as long as we have a broken immigration system, that minimum wage has a trap door. Through that trap door is pushed first, the immigrant worker and that person who pushes him is that crooked employers. So the crooked employer pushes the immigrant worker through the trap door, pushes down their wages.

The next person through that trap door is the native-born worker, African-American, white, Hispanic, etcetera, etcetera. So because that immigration system is broken and that trap door exist, worker after worker is pushed through the trap door, paid a lower wage, has fewer rights and opportunities in the workplace. You pass comprehensive immigration reform, you close the trap door, and everybody is able to compete for the same job and the same wage.

MARTIN: Your organization has been working on this since 1982.

Mr. NOORANI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And, that's a long time on a particular legislative focus. And I would like to ask what is your sense of whether this is indeed the time?

Mr. NOORANI: Politically, this is one of the few issues if maybe the only issue in Congress that has a history of bipartisan support and a future of bipartisan support. Personally, this is one of those problems where people are just tired of the bickering, and it's been going on for 10-15 years. They want a solution.

So when you have Dick Armey, who is the head of the Tea Party movement, saying, you know, we have got to do right by Hispanics and make sure that we fix the immigration system, as well as somebody like a John Podesta saying we want immigration reform, the politics and the personalities rarely fit together so well, especially in this day and age, so think this is the time. And I think that March 21st, when, you know, the tens of thousands come to come to D.C. and say Mr. President, members of Congress, we want action and we want a reformed immigration system, we're going to see change in the next month or two.

MARTIN: Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. It's one of the groups putting together this weekend's anticipated major march in advance of an immigration overhaul and he joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Ali Noorani, thank you.

Mr. NOORANI: Thank you.

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