Immigration Issue Appears to Stall in Streets, Congress

Supporters of illegal immigrants have been marching in several cities across the country. But the crowds were not as big as the demonstrations last spring. And on Capitol Hill, immigration bills have stalled in Congress.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as we've heard from Brian, it's unlikely that the House and Senate will agree on a new immigration bill any time soon.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden covers immigration issues, and she joins us now. Good morning.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Why is the legislative process so stalled?

LUDDEN: You know, it's really a hard issue. It's a legitimately difficult issue. And it divides, as we heard, both political parties, not just the GOP, also the Democratic Party. Politicians try to read the public mood; the public is very divided from all the polls that we've seen. And there's a lot at stake here.

I mean the border security is not what's at issue. Both the Senate and the House have come out with broad border security bills. What's divisive is whether to legalize immigrants here. And, you know, it's a complicated issue. It doesn't play well. There's no good soundbites to ring out there on the hustings, and I think it's just easier to punt right now.

MONTAGNE: You know, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain has been a big proponent of a comprehensive immigration bill. He's seeking a meeting between congressional leaders and President Bush to talk about immigration. What would that meeting achieve at this stage?

LUDDEN: Basically what both sides say is the only thing that can get this meeting moving, which is aggressive involvement by President Bush. If you've got the two parties stalled, we've heard everyone say that President Bush is the only one who can make a difference. And it has been one of his key issues from the beginning of his administration, and he's had moments where he's inserted himself. We don't know yet whether he's just going to give it the old college try this time, but both McCain and Edward Kennedy in the Senate are asking him to do that.

MONTAGNE: Now there were several demonstrations by immigrants' rights advocates in several cities around the country timed to kick off the political season; not, though, anything like the turnout we saw last spring.

LUDDEN: No, not at all. Especially in Phoenix, where there was about hundreds of thousands earlier, there was just hundreds or a couple of thousand at most reported there. And it's hard to say why. You know, these plans - marches have been planned for months but there're wide-ranging and diverse coalitions that we have here. It's unions and businesses and aid groups and churches, and they have had divisions among themselves as to what approach to take. They say, look, this is part of our strategy now, but we're focusing more on voter registration and getting legal immigrants naturalized to become citizens and vote. And that's their focus.

MONTAGNE: One person who's been really out there getting a fair amount of attention in this fight for immigrants' right is Cardinal Roger Mahoney here in Los Angeles. He addressed immigration again yesterday.

LUDDEN: Yeah. He's perhaps the most outspoken voice, and yesterday at a special Labor Day mass he called on Congress to pass legislation to legalize millions of illegal workers. He called it a moral issue and said that he has sent letters to President Bush and congressional leaders urging them to get past this stalemate.

MONTAGNE: Now there's a question of immigrant groups focusing on voter registration. How much success have they had?

LUDDEN: By all accounts, the numbers aren't impressive; and one activist said as much to me. I mean he said obviously many immigrants are undocumented, they can't vote. These groups are targeting legal immigrants who are eligible to become citizens and therefore be able to vote and haven't just done so yet for whatever reason. And there are millions of them out there. But that process takes a long time. I mean it takes longer these days to get legalized -naturalized than it used to. It's a very delayed process with backlogs.

So this is an effort really directed much more at 2008. But, you know, there's a lot of confidence there. I mean one activist said to me, look at the demographics, look at the birth rates on native-born white Americans versus Hispanics. You know, we're going to get Congress to legalize undocumented workers, it's just a matter of when.

MONTAGNE: Well, just one last question. Is this the sort of issue, Jennifer, that will actually pull people to the polls?

LUDDEN: I'm not really sure it will. I think that there are people who - out there who say we're not going to vote for a congressman who either does or does not vote this way. So there are certainly is an effort to make it an issue. And while it is an issue, though, I'm not sure it's the top issue in a lot of individual voter's minds.

MONTAGNE: Thank very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

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