Government shutdown overshadows immigration reform efforts

Immigration reform advocates rallied around the country this weekend. For now, it looks like bitter Washington partisanship and the government shutdown have stalled any chance of reform.

Shari Vialpando-Hill/The Las Cruces Sun-News/AP
Jose Gonzalez of El Paso, Texas, carries the American flag as he leads hundreds of marchers in Las Cruces, N.M. Saturday in a rally for immigration reform.

With immigration reform eclipsed by the federal government shutdown, advocates hoped to regain momentum with weekend marches and rallies in numerous cities.

"This marks the beginning of the escalation for the pro-immigrant-rights movement," says Dawn Le, deputy campaign manager for the Alliance for Citizenship in Washington.

Reform supporters want lawmakers locked in a bitter political fight over funding to act on immigration legislation that would legalize an estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally. The  Senate in June approved a bill that also incorporates beefed-up border enforcement but the full House has yet to vote on a measure.

Some experts say it won't be easy for reform advocates to steer the attention of Congress back to immigration.

"There's a loss of energy in all of this," says Josiah Heyman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso whose teaching and research focus on immigration.

While Professor Heyman still counts immigration reform as viable, he says the shutdown throws a wrinkle in what already was a volatile debate.

"The circumstances right now mean that there's a great deal of rigidity," he adds. "There's an increasingly isolated, very conservative faction of representatives in the House that's an obstacle."

That the marches and rallies coincide with the shutdown is "terrible timing," says Lisa Magaña, a political scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe. "Everything is being so overshadowed by the government being closed down right now."

The breakdown came after the Republican-controlled House passed a spending bill excluding funding for the Affordable Care Act that the Democratic Senate and President Obama want fully funded.

Some of the same Republicans pushing against the president's signature health care law also oppose granting permanent residency and eventual citizenship to immigrants, adds Professor Magaña, who teaches in ASU's School of Transborder Studies.

"It's the same sort of thinking," she adds. "And my understanding is that they don't have to worry about their constituents because immigration is not a big issue in their district."

An immigration reform bill that House Democrats unveiled Oct. 1 carries little weight, she says. "It's more about trying to show that Democrats are more supportive of immigration reform and Republicans  are not. I think it's just all sort of branding right now."

But as deep political divisions rage over the budget and members of Congress prepare for potentially tough negotiations on whether to increase the limit on federal borrowing to avert default, Ms. Le holds  the view that immigration reform can serve to unite.

"Right now, during this partisan gridlock period, immigration reform is the one lone bipartisan issue that's before Congress right now," says the campaign manager, whose advocacy group coordinated events in what was dubbed a National Day of Action.

Although not as large as the 2006 marches that revealed the sheer numbers of immigrants in the country without legal status, the Saturday demonstrations drew throngs of reform advocates to the streets. From Phoenix to Miami and Los Angeles to New York City, protesters aimed to keep the need for immigration reform front and center while attempting to "break through the logjam that's happening," Le adds.

In Phoenix, reform advocates marched through the city's downtown, training the spotlight on the Obama administration's record number of deportations and young immigrants whose lack of legal status means  limited options for a college education.

"No one in the movement is going to give up," says Tony Navarrete, operations manager for Promise Arizona, an immigrant-advocacy group in the Arizona capital.

"We really need to have a vote on immigration reform, that's one of the messages we're going to keep pushing," he adds. "We're going to continue to fight for our families because this is an issue that must  transcend divisive politics."

While the demonstrations could fall on deaf ears because of the shutdown, they remind that immigration reform is still on the table, at least from the perspective of supporters, says Tom Wong, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego.

"It's also reminding the advocacy community in general that this fight is long from being over and that at this stage, in the congressional debate, the fight is becoming much more difficult."
 Mr. Wong created a model based on population and other data from states and districts that in the spring accurately predicted Senate passage of an immigration reform bill. For now, he is sticking to his  prediction that the House will fail to pass such legislation by 15 to 20 votes.

"If the political fight drags on, it may further muddy any hopes for immigration reform to move forward," he adds.

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