Amanda Lee Myers/AP
Warren Stewart Sr., pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, tells a crowd that a sweeping Arizona bill aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants must go, during a rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Tuesday.
Warren Stewart Sr., pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, tells a crowd that a sweeping Arizona bill aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants must go, during a rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Tuesday. Amanda Lee Myers/AP
Presidential candidate Barack Obama once spoke about his commitment to bring millions of illegal immigrants "out of the shadows" by overhauling federal immigration law during the first year of his administration.
But now, nearly a year and half after taking office, President Obama and Democratic leaders are scrambling to quell escalating anger within the Latino community over the lack of action.
Since an immigration overhaul bill stalled in Congress in 2008, states have passed hundreds of laws addressing the issue. Most of these have sought to make life more difficult for illegal immigrants.
Thirteen states now require that some employers use the federal E-Verify system to ensure the legal status of new hires. Others have sought to crack down on the hiring of day laborers, or penalized landlords who rent to illegal immigrants.
But the pace of new laws addressing illegal immigrants appears to have slowed. It was a hot topic a couple of years ago, but most states have already decided to act — or not. The most recent bills mandating employer verification were watered-down versions of what their sponsors intended.
Bob Dane, press secretary for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, thinks a proposal in Arizona that would have police check citizenship status without probable cause could become "model legislation" that will be emulated by other states.
But Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a business-backed group that opposes the Arizona proposal, is dubious. Other states have not always followed Arizona's lead on other tough-on-immigration laws, she says.
"Arizona is always going further than everyone else," she says, "In other states, there have been a few people who said, 'Let's follow Arizona,' but generally it has not come to pass."
"Folks who were counting on a bill getting passed, who were hoping and praying, are now horribly disappointed," says Brent Wilkes, who heads the League of United Latin American Citizens, an 80-year-old Latino rights advocacy group.
The feeling of urgency among supporters of an immigration overhaul intensified this week, when the Arizona Senate approved an immigration bill with some of the nation's toughest measures — including a provision that would allow law enforcement officials to question citizens who they simply suspect might be in the country illegally.
Fallout At The Polls?
The disappointment, activists say, threatens to keep Latino voters — who overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008 — away from the polls in the fall, when Democrats are already braced for major losses.
The situation has encouraged some activists to engage in civil disobedience, with a promise of more, to draw attention to their frustration over the lack of congressional action and the administration's continued enforcement of deportation efforts some see as draconian. (On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana called on the White House to stop the deportations of young people eligible for a path to citizenship through college or the military.)
"The president made a promise and he hasn't kept it," says Frank Sharry of America's Voice, a proponent of comprehensive immigration overhaul. "This was our shot, and now there's no evidence that there's going to be a bill."
"Latino immigrants and their allies are mobilizing like we haven't seen in years," Sharry says.
Arizona Ripple Effect
But those who oppose any overhaul that includes what they call "amnesty" for illegal immigrants say that state-based measures such as the one Arizona passed are needed, given the lack of a comprehensive national immigration policy.
Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for significant reductions in immigrants allowed into the country, calls the Arizona measure tough and sensible. What's happening in the states is inevitable, he says, "given the backdrop of failure by the government to do anything in this area."
"The federal government has a history of irresponsibility and neglect on this issue," Stein says. "People are desperate and are pleading for some relief."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who faces a legion of challengers in the party's August primary, is expected to sign the measure. There are some indications that legislators in other states are planning to draft "copycat" legislation.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who in the past co-sponsored legislation that included a path to citizenship, on Monday called the Arizona bill "a very important step forward." This week, he proposed a plan with fellow Arizona GOP Sen. Jon Kyl that focuses on bolstering security on the Mexican border.
Their proposal includes the deployment of 3,000 more border patrol agents in Arizona by 2015, and funding to help local law enforcement officials in the battle against drug and human smuggling.
Forcing Obama's Hand?
McCain's hard-line position, which comes as he faces a serious primary challenge from conservative radio talker and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, has deeply disappointed those in the overhaul community who previously saw him as a partner.
But the McCain-Kyl proposal also might force Obama's hand — and that of Democratic leaders who have watched the dying fortunes of bipartisan legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York. (Kyl has promised a GOP filibuster of the bill.)
"Given that McCain and Kyl have laid out their vision of immigration reform, it would be a little awkward for the Democrats not to have their own vision," says Angela Kelly of the Center for American Progress. "I suspect they'll have something, but I would hope that it would be done in the spirit of inviting Republicans to their table."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to bring something to the floor this session, and the president has reached out to a handful of Republican senators – including Scott Brown of Massachusetts — in an effort to corral some bipartisan support for the Graham-Schumer effort.
But time for action is running out. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration legislation, is expected to dive into Supreme Court nomination hearings in the early summer, leaving little or no time for immigration deliberations before Congress' August recess.
And there are real questions about whether, after the bruising health care battle, Obama has political capital to invest in what promises to be a pitched war over immigration. Do Democrats on the Hill have the stomach for what Stein characterizes as "a battle for what America is, and what it becomes"?
Sharry of America's Voice, who attended a White House meeting Friday on the issue, said he was "underwhelmed" by the administration's commitment to quick action.
Last month, 200,000 supporters of an immigration overhaul rallied in Washington on the same day that 2,000 members of the Tea Party movement demonstrated outside the U.S. Capitol during the health care vote.
Media coverage focused almost exclusively on the Tea Partiers, which infuriated advocates of an overhaul.
But politicians ignore those mobilizing around the immigration issue at their peril, Sharry says.
"At the end of the day, there's no doubt who will be the major force in American politics," he says. "It's not people who are aging and represent the past."