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Immigration Reform Advocates Open to Taking Piecemeal Approach

Steadfast supporters of comprehensive immigration reform say that to have a chance for any change in 2014, they may have to be content with legislation that only addresses some of their overall objectives.

Immigration reform protesters walked up Congress Avenue toward the Texas Capitol on Feb. 22, 2013.

*Correction appended

EL PASO — Although U.S. House members are back in their districts after leaving the issue of immigration reform untouched, advocates for change — including members of the business community — have a clear message: We’re not going anywhere.

Reform advocates say efforts that have included peaceful protests, town halls, editorial board meetings, civil disobedience and fasting would continue in 2014 until the issue — even in a piecemeal fashion — was addressed.

“We had a good year in 2013, and we are going to continue,” Eddie Carmona, a manager for PICO National Network’s Campaign for Citizenship, said Wednesday during a conference call. “We are going to be in this fight” until families are no longer being torn apart, he added.

But even the most steadfast supporters of comprehensive immigration reform — whose key component is creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants but also includes aspects of a guest-worker program, more visas for high-skilled workers and provisions for residency or citizenship contingent on military service — concede that the best chance for change in 2014 may be legislation that doesn’t completely meet their objectives.

Recent estimates by the Pew Research Center indicate there are about 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the country, including about 1.7 million in Texas.

There were high hopes at the beginning of 2013 that Congress would address immigration reform for the first time since 1986. And in June, the Senate passed S. 744, which would pave the way for citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants. But House Republicans refused to take up the measure and did not consider a similar version, H.R. 15, in the lower chamber. 

Both measures would have provided a 13-year path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants, increased the caps on visas, and established a shorter timeline for DREAM Act-eligible youths to obtain legal status and citizenship. The Senate version included an amendment that would have doubled the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents and mandated about 700 miles of fencing on the southern border.

But gridlock emerged over how to craft the best immigration policy: a measured and segmented approach or one comprehensive effort. The piecemeal approach would include passing individual measures that address, among other issues, border security and increased staffing at ports of entry, legal migration and more visas and the DREAM Act.

“There is a way to do piecemeal legislation that adds up to a comprehensive solution,” Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform group, said during Wednesday’s conference call. “In the Senate they passed one bill with something like eight sections. In the House they could pass eight bills that add up to the same package.”

Bill Hammond, a lobbyist and former state lawmaker who serves as president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said the step-by-step approach is probably the best scenario for moving forward, given the current composition of Congress. Hammond, who supports comprehensive immigration reform, was one of several business leaders who participated in roundtables and editorial meetings this year with a pro-reform group called Bibles, Badges and Business, which was spearheaded by the National Immigration Forum.

“The only the way the House will deal with it is a series of individual bills that may or may not get rolled into one bill,” said Hammond, who plans to continue advocating on the issue in 2014. “That’s understandable, but there is a downside to that. Certain bills will pass and certain bills won’t.

Added Hammond, a Republican: “I think the real question is will the Democrats vote for a piecemeal approach. Some have said yes, and some have said no.”

But Sharry said Republicans had no choice but to work with Democrats, who will try to get as close to a massive overhaul as they can. He said the process matters less than the result.

“There are 20 to 25 Republicans that are in the 'hell no' caucus, that don’t want to vote for any measures that could end up in a House-Senate negotiation,” he said. “Quite frankly, it’s going to be impossible for the Republicans to pass anything on the House floor unless they work with Democrats, and Democrats are going to insist that all aspects of immigration reform be dealt with.”

The inaction on immigration reform has also prompted the question of how it will affect midterm elections next year. Democrats could use the House Republicans’ unwillingness to act as campaign fodder, which could be a key tool in reaching out to the growing Latino electorate.

In Texas, however, most congressional races will be decided during the March primary, Hammond said. The predictable outcome is that the state’s Republicans will move farther right, he added.

“Doing nothing is not a risk for them, which is a big part of the problem,” he said. “Their view runs toward the next election rather than the next generation.”

The long-term effects, however, could be a different story.

“If the Republicans don’t do a better job of dealing with this issue, then a few years down the road, I believe — and I have been told by several — that Texas will never again vote for a Republican for president, which means a Republican will never be elected president,” he said. 

*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said the group Bibles, Badges and Business was spearheaded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was spearheaded by the National Immigration Forum.

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