Senate Democrats huddled with immigration advocates at the Capitol on Tuesday to rally them around a unified message: Train all your fire on House Republicans from now until August.
Until now, reform backers have waged a war on two fronts: Urging lawmakers to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul, and pressuring President Barack Obama to use administrative action to ease deportations and alter his enforcement policies. That dual strategy has, at times, competed with one another.
“We talked about doing everything we could to get the House to act before August recess,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) after the hourlong meeting. “If they don’t act, you know, then the president is going to have no choice but to act on his own. But we’d all prefer that there be a legislative solution.”
The groups at the Tuesday meeting primarily consisted of Latino and liberal-leaning advocacy organizations that have lobbied for immigration reform, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Democratic members of the Senate Gang of Eight that wrote the chamber’s overhaul bill.
Advocates who attended the meeting said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), in particular, made a forceful case for waiting the 72 days until Aug. 1 — the last day the Senate is slated to be in session before the monthlong break — to try to get legislative reform that would be permanent, rather than an administrative relief that may be temporary.
But advocates also noted to senators that they are pressuring the administration not just to shield immigrants here illegally from deportations, but also to make some changes in the way that the administration carries out immigration enforcement.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who is leading the administration’s deportation review, signaled last week that he may be announcing some changes to Secure Communities — a program that calls on local law enforcement to give fingerprints of people booked into jails over to federal immigration officials.
House Republicans have not ruled out action on immigration reform this year, but the chances are highly unlikely. While key GOP lawmakers are still working to build support for reform within their conference, Republicans have repeatedly said they can’t trust the Obama administration to enforce any immigration laws that Congress may eventually pass.
“Speaker Boehner has been very clear about this: He wants to fix America’s broken immigration system,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Tuesday evening. “But no one trusts the White House to enforce the law as written.”
At the meeting Tuesday, there were also differing views on timing on how long they should wait for the House GOP, attendees said. Many advocates would like to see tangible movement toward legislation by the July Fourth recess. Meanwhile, senators want to give House Republicans until the August break.
Advocates told senators that if there is no “discernible” action by early July, “we are relying on you as Senate Democratic leadership to be hand-in-hand with us completely on a broad relief both in terms of enforcement reforms and affirmative relief,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
“I think the pressure is going to continue mounting on all sides,” added Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza, who also attended the meeting. “We are going to continue pressuring the White House. Whenever there’s delay on the issue of immigration, it hasn’t really served us well.”