Why Immigration Is Coming Back as a Big Issue

As Rep. Joe Wilson illustrated with his "You lie!" outburst during President Barack Obama's speech to Congress, the illegal-immigration issue remains as hot as ever. Lou Dobbs still fulminates about it most evenings on CNN. Conservative talk-radio hosts descended on Washington, D.C., last month for a "Hold Their Feet to the Fire" gathering, aimed at lobbying against "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. On the other side, the United We DREAM Coalition organized 125 events around the country a few weeks ago in support of a law that would legalize certain undocumented high-school graduates.

Today's news may be dominated by the health-care debate, but a new battle over immigration reform looms ahead. As Obama repeated yet again last month, in an interview with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, "I am not backing off one minute from getting this done." He has appointed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to spearhead the administration's effort. Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Luis Gutierrez are separately crafting bills that would address the key components of immigration reform: border enforcement, employer crackdowns, temporary work visas, and a path to citizenship for the undocumented. (The latter bill is expected to be introduced in the House later this month.)

Given the conservative rage that flared up at town-hall meetings in August, this might not seem like the most hospitable climate in which to tackle such a toxic issue. Yet pro-immigrant groups insist that this may well be their moment. After their unsuccessful attempt to get legislation passed in 2007, they regrouped, studied what went wrong, and hatched a new approach. "The advocacy groups fighting for comprehensive reform will be better organized and more effective" this time around, says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.

Two years ago, those advocates thought it was their time then. President George W. Bush supported an immigration overhaul that included a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and Democrats had just gained control of Congress. But the effort collapsed in the face of a furious grassroots rebellion over supposed amnesty provisions and opposition from most Republicans and some centrist Democrats. In the eyes of the antilegalization folks, the revolt was widespread. Americans "are just generally opposed to rewarding people who broke the law," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group that advocates reduced immigration.

The bill's backers, on the other hand, believe they failed because of a small but effective adversary, and because of their own missteps. "We thought we were in a policy debate, and it turned out we were in … a political struggle colored by a culture war," says Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration organization. He concedes that his side underestimated the ferocity of the opposition to reform, even though they knew that immigration has always stirred deep divisions. "Politicians were afraid of the anti-immigrant forces and not afraid of the base in favor of immigration reform," says Sharry. In addition, that base suffered from internal rifts, including one between business groups that backed temporary worker visas and labor unions that opposed them. Leaders also wasted too much energy shoring up their own supporters instead of winning new ones, says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which includes 25,000 Latino evangelical churches. "I spent more time reaffirming people we already had on our side, rather than meeting with [moderate] Blue Dog Democrats or Republicans."

Yet conditions seem just as hostile today, if not more so. "The angry right is more angry now than they were two years ago," says Rosenberg. They're livid over the battered economy, over Democratic dominance in Washington, over the health-care fight. "We all know that if and when this heats up, the other side will go absolutely ballistic," says Sharry. "It will make the town-hall meetings look amateurish." The spectacle of right-wing upheaval worries Rodriguez. "If [Fox News's] Glenn Beck wants to incorporate an anti-immigrant plank within the tea party movement, we are in bad shape," he says.

Despite all this, proponents of comprehensive reform point to some encouraging developments. For one thing, polling continues to show that a majority of Americans support a package that combines stricter enforcement of immigration laws with legalization of undocumented workers, provided they meet certain requirements. According to a Pew Research Center poll released in May, 63 percent of respondents supported a pathway to citizenship. Obama is also a more committed ally than Bush was, advocates say, and Democrats have firmer control of Congress. Moreover, Latino voters are feeling much more empowered after the 2008 elections. "Forty-four electoral votes went blue because of the Latino and immigrant vote in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Florida," says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group (though the claim is impossible to verify, higher turnout and stronger Democratic support among Hispanics undoubtedly contributed to Obama's victory in those states). Now, Noorani and others argue, it's time for the Democrats to deliver.

But the pro-immigration forces know better than to take anything for granted this time. They're organizing grassroots activists to counter their opponents' arsenal: their databases of supporters, letter-writing campaigns, and talk-radio mobilizations. The National Immigration Forum and others launched the Campaign to Reform Immigration for America in June—a coalition that now includes more than 600 business, faith, labor, and immigrant groups. "Like it or not, policy debates are now campaign-style battles," says Sharry. "It's field, it's communications, it's policy, it's legislative strategy, and it's the electoral muscle to back it up." Rodriguez and his counterparts in the faith community travel to Washington weekly to buttonhole lawmakers. This time, he says, he's skipping those who are already on board. "We're reaching out to the Eric Cantors of the world," he says, referring to the conservative House Republican whip.

Reform backers have also recast their arguments as well. In 2007, they often framed the discussion in moral terms ("this is the right thing to do") or policy ones ("this is the sensible thing to do"). Now, they're pursuing communications strategies that they hope will resonate more effectively. For Rodriguez, "it's a message of assimilation," he says. "Let's incorporate [immigrants] and permit them to become great productive Americans." Noorani offers a fiscal rationale. Why keep undocumented workers in an underground economy where they don't pay taxes, he asks, when instead, they could be contributing sorely needed revenue to the government?

Immigrant advocates are also adopting a more pugnacious stance toward their adversaries. They plan to respond aggressively to attacks and perceived distortions. If conservatives employ xenophobic rhetoric, "we will not stand idly by," says Rodriguez. Republicans have already imperiled their future viability as a party by alienating Latinos, he argues. If they continue down this path, "it will be their death knell."

Pro-reform groups are going on the offensive against those they consider immigrant bashers. A few weeks ago, America's Voice ran an ad in Roll Call noting that the Southern Poverty Law Center had designated FAIR a "hate group." (Mehlman, FAIR's spokesman, responds that the allegation is absurd and that the SPLC is a "discredited organization.") Meanwhile, a number of groups have launched a campaign calling for CNN to rein in Dobbs, citing his "racially charged conspiracy theories" and "hate speech," as a New Democrat Network press release put it. They've created Web sites, including dropdobbs.com and tellcnnenoughisenough.com, to rally those who are fed up with Dobbs's commentary. "It's not only offensive," says Jorge Mursuli, national executive director of Democracia U.S.A. "It's not fact. And it's being presented as fact on a network that calls itself 'the most trusted name in news.' " (A CNN spokesperson declined to comment.) Such skirmishes are just a taste of what's to come. Says Sharry: "This is going to be a knock-down, drag-out campaign."