With hopes that an immigration bill will pass Congress this year quickly fading, advocates are shifting their focus to 2014.
PHOENIX -- This was supposed to be the year of immigration reform.
But with hope quickly fading that an immigration bill will pass by year's end, advocates are shifting their focus to 2014, girding for an even tougher battle as the already-contentious issue drifts into the perilous political waters of an election year.
Reform advocates are determined to keep the immigration debate alive, vowing to continue pressing lawmakers to pass immigration reform, if not this year, then next.
"We need to keep fanning the flames," said Eduardo Nevares, auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and immigration-reform advocate.
Until Congress acts, some activists also are increasing calls on President Barack Obama to take action on his own by stopping deportations and expanding his deferred-action program to a larger number of undocumented immigrants, not just those brought here illegally as children.
One unexpected call for such action drew widespread attention this week, when a heckler shouted at Obama as he delivered a speech in support of immigration reform at a recreation center in San Francisco's Chinatown neighborhood on Monday.
"Mr. President, please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in this country right now," the heckler shouted.
The San Jose Mercury News identified the heckler as Ju Hong, 24, a University of California-Berkeley graduate and immigrant without legal status from South Korea.
"We agree that we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform. But at the same time you have the power to stop deportations for all undocumented immigrants in the country," Hong yelled.
"Actually, I don't," Obama responded.
"If in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so. But we are also a nation of laws," Obama continued. "And so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend I can try and do something by violating our laws. And what I am proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic process to achieve the same goal you want to achieve."
But if that doesn't work, reform supporters are also gearing up for next year's elections, when they hope to send a message by targeting Republicans in congressional districts where demographics give Latino voters more clout.
"As much as it looks bleak for action this year, we haven't given up," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that champions comprehensive immigration reform. "If this Congress doesn't get immigration reform done, then a lot of us are going to work as hard as we can to elect a Congress in 2014 that will."
In the meantime, reform advocates haven't completely written off this year, which started off with Obama and influential Republicans declaring their support for immigration reform.
Activists from several states have camped out at House Speaker John Boehner's Washington, D.C., office. They also have held vigils at his home and confronted him while eating at a diner.
Despite months of minimal movement on the issue, Boehner, R-Ohio, and — as recently as Sunday — House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., continue to suggest immigration reform is still alive, while being vague about a timeline for action.
But House GOP leaders are unlikely to explicitly declare immigration reform dead, recognizing the negative message such a declaration would send to Latino voters.
"Immigration reform is going to happen," McCarthy said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." "But it's going to happen in a step-by-step method. ... The immigration system, it is broken, it needs to be fixed."
A step-by-step approach on immigration reform is gaining momentum after House Republican leaders refused to take up the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate in June.
But the heightened partisanship that accompanies congressional midterm elections will make passing any bill more difficult as the year progresses, analysts say.
Obama announced he is willing to go along with the House GOP strategy of passing a series of "piecemeal" immigration bills in a specific sequence rather than the comprehensive approach preferred by the White House and the Democrats who control the Senate. Obama said the House bills must address the same components as the Senate's bipartisan comprehensive package, which includes a pathway to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country in addition to addressing border security, the legal immigration backlog, new visas for foreign workers and other issues. The Senate passed its bill on June 27.
"They're suspicious of comprehensive bills, but if they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don't care what it looks like as long as it's actually delivering on those core values that we talk about," Obama said at a Nov. 19 Wall Street Journal event.
Boehner dealt a blow to the morale of reform supporters when he announced House Republicans would not negotiate with the Senate on its comprehensive bill. But he has since reiterated that House Republicans are continuing to work on their own immigration bills and called Obama's comments encouraging.
Several House immigration bills have moved through committee, but so far Boehner has brought none to the floor for a vote of the full House. Other bills that would provide a path to citizenship for "dreamers," the young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, and address the legal status of the broader undocumented population have yet to surface. The House dreamer legislation, which has been tentatively dubbed "the Kids Act," apparently has hit a snag over whether the dreamers would be allowed to sponsor their parents and other family members for citizenship.
Cesar Vargas, director of the Dream Action Coalition, said trying to put such restrictions on dreamers could be unconstitutional and create "a second-class citizenry" in the United States. But despite those concerns, he called on House Republicans to introduce the legislation anyway.
"Let's see what the Kids Act is," Vargas said. "If they want to introduce this act as is, with the parental ban, well, let's introduce it. Let's debate it."
Petra Falcon, director of Promise Arizona, an advocacy group pushing for reforms that allow undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and citizenship, said she remains hopeful that a bill will pass in the few remaining weeks of the year. But if it doesn't, her group will push lawmakers to pass immigration reform in 2014.
In 2014, the group's main focus will continue to be applying pressure on lawmakers by building an electorate that favors immigration reform. For the past several years, Promise Arizona and other immigration-reform groups have been targeting Republican-held congressional districts in Arizona by going door to door and registering Latino voters.
"In 2014, we've got to continue broadening the electoral base," Falcon said.
Sharry, of America's Voice, indicated efforts to lobby the Obama administration and Homeland Security Department on deportation policy would continue parallel to political efforts.
"The president says he supports the Senate bill, and yet the administration is deporting people who would qualify for legal status," Sharry said. "It's arbitrary and cruel."
But others in the immigration-reform movement don't necessarily agree administrative action would be the best route. Some worry such a move by Obama would further inflame congressional Republican opposition to a legislative solution on immigration that many say is desperately needed.
"I hope that doesn't happen because I think that would divide the nation in a bad way," Nevares said.
Even dreamers who have temporarily benefited under the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative say congressional action is needed now.
DACA applies to undocumented immigrants between the ages of 15 to 30 who came to the U.S. as children and who are in school or have graduated from high school.
Reyna Montoya of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition noted that in Arizona, dreamers still can't get driver licenses.
"It's just been really, really challenging to see that every day, every inaction of Congress, we see the consequences in our state," she said during a recent conference call with reporters.
Lizeth Arias of the Dreamers of Virginia also said dreamers need something more permanent.
"We all are pressured by the time that is passing. Our deferred action is not going to last forever," Arias said. "It'll be over for most of us next year, and we must renew it. And if they decide to cut the program, then we are left again where we started: as undocumented (youths) with little possibility for a brighter future."