Back at Home, but Nowhere to Hide
Congress took a recess, but there's just no respite from lobbying over immigration reform
KANSAS CITY, MO.--This city is roughly 950 miles from America's southern border, but in the past few weeks, it has seemed a whole lot closer. Two weeks ago, illegal immigrants and their advocates--several thousand strong--clogged an entire city block just north of the federal courthouse, protesting against what they believe are overly harsh immigration proposals in Congress. A week later, more than 500 people on the other side of the issue descended on the exclusive Country Club Plaza shopping district to clamor for tougher border security. Among the signs at that rally: "No Way! Jose" and "This Isn't Mexico."
Members of Congress may have been on recess for the past two weeks, but even back in their home districts, immigration reform proved to be the burn no lawmaker could escape. "I've never seen an issue with this much intensity," says Nevada's Sen. John Ensign, who says he was harangued by constituents and even his own relatives.
The lobbying is intense because the issue is still hanging fire. Congress left Washington in early April after senators hammered out a compromise measure, then promptly scuttled it less than 24 hours later. The deal would have created a tiered system to deal with the country's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants: Those here for five years could work for citizenship after paying off back taxes, while those here for two years or less would have to return home. This week, senators are expected to begin a new fight over virtually the same proposal.
Swing. Advocacy groups on all sides are keeping the pressure on, cobbling together informal rosters of known supporters and crucial "swing senators" and trying to influence them in myriad ways. "It's the nature of the Senate," says Craig Regelbrugge, senior government relations director for the American Nursery and Landscape Association, "that every single vote counts." Kansans at the Plaza rally in Kansas City held signs excoriating conservative Sen. Sam Brownback, a key backer of the compromise, but the state's more moderate senator, Pat Roberts, is considered a crucial undecided vote. Others believed to be on the fence include California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Ohio Republican George Voinovich, and Utah's Bob Bennett. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a vocal crusader for the conservative enforcement-only immigration bill crafted by the House, spammed his own list of swing senators with E-mails and enlisted activists to make phone calls and send thousands of faxes last week as part of his ongoing "Say No to Amnesty Campaign." Concerned Californians asked Feinstein questions about immigration at a town hall meeting.
Business groups nationwide are employing "grasstop" organizing: Using personal connections to set up meetings with politicians or phone them directly. In Princeton, N.J., employers in the landscaping industry met with both their senators in an effort to promote an amendment to the compromise favorable to seasonal workers.In Colorado, representatives from the state's Restaurant Association met with Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar--twice. "The weight of our mail isn't as heavy as theirs," says Regelbrugge of the opposition. "But I'm guessing we've called about half the members of the Senate."
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on immigration's economic impact; senators will also tweak some language and try to build support for the compromise bill. That won't be easy. Judiciary Committee member John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, has launched an E-mail campaign to expose "the truth" about the compromise measure, including loopholes he claims would allow criminals to get green cards. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said he hopes to see the final bill voted on by the entire Senate before Memorial Day. "Now that there's breathing space," says Dan Stein, president of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, "the hope is people will calmly reconsider just what's in this bill." Since the issue is immigration, however, calm may be a bit too much to hope for.
This story appears in the May 1, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.