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Remember Immigration?

Lawmakers are reeling from the bruising political battle over health care reform and are loath to take on another divisive issue and additional risky votes. So the prospects remain dim for legislation that would improve border security, provide a pathway to citizenship for millions and crack down on unscrupulous employers — but that doesn't mean everyone's forgotten about it, as the hundreds of thousands of advocates who marched on Washington, D.C., last weekend can attest.

Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance press conference in Dallas before departure for The March for America Immigration Rally.

Immigration reformers have been itching for Congress to finish the health care overhaul and finally begin the debate about fixing the nation’s broken immigration system. “We have to end the suffering of all these individuals and families and allow equal access to health and education for millions,” says Maria Jimenez, special projects coordinator for Houston’s America for All, an immigrant advocacy organization.

Even though health care reform has been signed into law, prospects remain dim for legislation that would improve border security, provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and crack down on unscrupulous employers. Lawmakers from both parties are weary from the health care battle: Republicans are still seething with anger, and Democrats are loath to take on another divisive issue and additional risky votes.  

President Obama promised to make immigration reform a priority in the first year of his administration. His pledges, both during the 2008 campaign and after the election, gave renewed hope to advocates. After quietly biding their time on the sidelines for months, they've recently grown vocal about their disappointment. Earlier this month, thousands of immigrant advocates marched on the National Mall, calling on the president and Congress to take up the issue. It was the biggest single immigration demonstration in years, with some 200,000 marchers, Jimenez says.

“I don’t like that people suffer for a system that is not working for the people who are living here, who are working, who are contributing to this economy,” says Eva Hinojosa, an El Pasoan who was among about 300 Texans who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the march.

But the demonstration was overshadowed in the media by the historic passage of the health care bill. Even on Univision, the Spanish-language television network, the march wasn't the lead story.

The marchers called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would improve the treatment of detained immigrants, allow a guest-worker program and create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers. “The last two years have been devastating for immigrant families,” says Jimenez, from Houston’s America for All. Stepped-up immigration enforcement has left thousands imprisoned. Local ordinances targeting housing and employment for immigrants have destroyed families. And new rules, such as the Texas policy that denies driver’s licenses to many legal immigrants, make life unsafe and insecure for thousands of Texas immigrant families, Jimenez says.

After the march, the advocates took to Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers for immigration reform, an effort arguably more important than the parade of flags, slogans and signs. But only about 3,000 of the demonstrators stuck around to visit legislators’ offices, she says. And when they got their audience with lawmakers and their staff members, the reception was chilly. “It became very clear that the House was not going to vote on the issue of immigration” because of the political risk involved, she says.

Jimenez left Washington motivated to work even harder for reform, understanding it will take harder work to succeed, regardless of presidential promises. “We can’t stop fighting it, and we’re going to have to fight it at all levels and in all manners,” she says.

Obama has said he wants a bipartisan solution, but that will likely be a tough sell for GOP lawmakers who feel Democrats rammed health care legislation through Congress over their united opposition. Some Republicans have already begun issuing statements opposing the immigration plan Obama supports, one proposed by U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Charles Schumer, D-New York. They criticize the proposal as unwarranted amnesty for lawbreakers, pushing instead for increased border security as the drug war in Mexico rages. “It is imperative that the United States increases resources and implements a strategy that roots out the cartels and keeps the violence from spilling over,” says U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin. “I oppose amnesty, and I oppose adding new laws until we properly secure our borders and enforce the laws we have.”

The last time the immigration issue flared on the national front was in 2005 and 2006, under President George W. Bush. Back then, Bush, along with Democratis and moderates from his own party, such as U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, urged a comprehensive approach to reform. But conservatives responded with a national crusade to crack down on illegal border crossing and tighten security. The movement bred a series of politically charged congressional hearings nationwide and prompted the genesis of groups like the Minuteman Project, which fields activists willing to take on border scofflaws with their own rifles. That’s when lawmakers conceived the multibillion-dollar border fence. Also in that time frame, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had long been moderate on immigration issues, ratcheted up his rhetoric. He started spending millions of state dollars on border “surge” operations, ramping up law enforcement presence on the border and vowing to place web cameras on the border.

Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the political pressures that existed then remain today, but that the players have changed. Then, she notes, it was a Republican president trying to get bipartisan support for comprehensive reform — now it’s a Democratic president.

The push for debate comes against the backdrop of a deep recession, a fact that makes discussion of immigration and employment even more challenging. And it comes as lawmakers have a raft of other major issues demanding their attention, including financial reform and a revamping of the No Child Left Behind Act. “There are a lot of bills that are coming up that will probably take up a lot of time and space,” Singer says.

Every day that other issues clog the agenda, the immigration debate gets pushed closer to this fall's midterm elections, when heated campaign rhetoric could make reform harder to address, Singer says. If the backers of reform aren’t successful before November, they'll have to deal with a new set of elected leaders. And with the national backlash against incumbents, particularly Democrats, the next make-up of Congress could pose even more of a challenge. “It’s one those issues that become very polarized, very politicized and very emotional,” Singer says.

Still, Texas Democrats in Congress say they're committed to pushing forward with the issue. “In order to pass this legislation, we must work with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle,” says U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, a vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “I remain optimistic that we will move forward to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

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