From hope to anger on immigration reform

The president and Michelle Obama meeting with hunger strikers last month in a tent on the National Mall in Washington. As deportations continue, the president has seen his standing with Hispanics fall sharply.
The president and Michelle Obama meeting with hunger strikers last month in a tent on the National Mall in Washington. As deportations continue, the president has seen his standing with Hispanics fall sharply. (PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP)
Posted: December 16, 2013

For supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, 2013 kicked off with great promise.

"Now is the time," President Obama said after a bipartisan group of eight senators released its overhaul proposal in January.

Their blueprint, most of which was adopted by the Senate in June, includes beefed-up border security and a 13-year path to citizenship for many of the nation's estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants.

Analysts agreed that Latino voters expected reform, Democrats wanted it, and Republicans needed it to be viable with Hispanics, who constitute the country's fastest-growing voting bloc.

How did a priority of the White House and both parties go from Sí se puede - yes we can - to No way, by year's end? From hope to nope?

The House, which flirted with legislation, including a bill similar to the Senate's, adjourned Friday without taking action.

"A lot of people were hopeful," said Varsovia Fernandez, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the 580-member association that includes high-tech firms in the suburbs, bodegas in the city, and favors an overhaul.

"What happened was the health-care Affordability Act took a lot of attention this year. Then we had the budget impasse. And more Obamacare issues" when people had problems signing up for insurance, Fernandez said.

Add the foreign-policy demands of Syria's civil war, Iran's nuclear program, and the Republicans' preference for piecemeal change instead of the Senate's omnibus-bill approach, and the issue stalled.

Those who want stricter limits on immigration object to amnesty for the undocumented who flouted U.S. law. They applaud the administration's record-setting pace of deportations, about 400,000 a year since Obama took office.

"The problem is not legalizing [the undocumented], as distasteful and expensive as that would be," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, which favors tougher immigration limits. "The problem is that we will be in the same place 10 years from now. No one believes that new immigration laws will be enforced any better than the old ones."

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), Pennsylvania's most vocal critic of illegal immigration, heads a national group - State Legislators for Legal Immigration - which keeps tabs on Congress and the White House.

Amnesties under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton "didn't work," said Metcalfe. "Obama's won't work either. Republicans should reach out not just to Latino voters, but to all hardworking Americans using [issues] like tax policy and limited government."

For their part, proponents of reform say the imperatives to act are practical and moral.

"In Philadelphia, especially in the neighborhoods, there are a lot of businesses that rely on [low-skilled] immigrant labor," Fernandez said.

"But we are also the capital of pharma and biotech in the U.S., right? They rely heavily on [high-skilled] H1B visas. These companies are unable to hire a talented, diverse workforce because of lack of immigration reform.

"It's not just the guy who comes across the border with nothing. It is also the professionals and high-tech students who could enhance STEM [science, technology, engineering, and medicine] and grow the economy."

Natasha Kelemen, director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, an advocacy group, said "it is fair to say we failed" at comprehensive reform in 2013.

"But with the changing demographics of the country," she said, growing diversity, and higher birthrates among immigrant groups, "it is clear [reform] is going to happen at some point."

For now, said Kelemen, the national movement that she is a part of takes solace in having pushed the envelope. Thirteen jurisdictions - 10 of them within the last year - have passed bills to provide driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants; more than 20 municipalities, counties, and states have limited local police cooperation with federal agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she said.

"We knew that we'd have to apply pressure for something to move," said Erika Almiron, director of the immigrant-rights group Juntos, which has chapters in Philadelphia and Norristown. Her members, many of whom are low-income Latinos, began the year optimistic, she said and now are impatient and increasingly angry with Obama, whose approval rating among Hispanics, according to last week's Gallup poll, fell 23 points in the last year.

"With 1,100 deportations happening every day, we're supposed to wait?" she said. "I think that's unfair and unjust."

By year's end, frustrated activists were attempting to blockade immigration detention centers, including the one in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Other activists are publicly fasting to try to pressure Congress to act.

In November, the president and Michelle Obama met with hunger strikers in a tent on the National Mall, including several who had consumed only water for more than three weeks.

For Almiron, who wants Obama to use his executive powers to halt deportations while Congress equivocates, the visit was a mere photo op.

"We need him to act," she said. "I don't think people were fasting to have the president come visit."


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

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