Immigration rights activists retool reform efforts
Posted: Jul 31, 2009 3:17 AM CDT
Updated: Jul 31, 2009 6:57 AM CDT

CHICAGO (AP) — Activists disappointed that the Obama administration has not given immigration top billing are trying to yank the issue off the back burner by pressing ahead with lobbying and legislation plans they hope will reinvigorate reform efforts.

By honing in on national lawmakers they believe are sympathetic or can be swayed to support their cause and drawing on voters who said reform was a top priority, many immigrant rights advocates are striving to make headway at a time when the economy has become the top priority.

"We're not going to just be chanting, 'Yes we can! Yes we can!'" said Jorge Mujica, an immigration advocate in Chicago, which held the largest May 1 rallies and often sets the tone for activists nationwide. "We are going to put the pressure on discussing the details."

It's been a roller coaster ride for immigrant rights advocates pushing for reform over the past few years. When a call to action came in 2006, more than a million people nationwide marched in solidarity to fight a bill considered anti-immigrant. Since then, two legislation attempts failed. The movement fractured, and May 1 rallies lost attendance.

Then came a surge of energy with massive voter registration drives and the election of President Barack Obama, whose father moved to the U.S. from Kenya.

Many activists hoped Obama would push for immigration reform during his first 100 days in office. Some thought the president would go so far as to put a moratorium on immigration raids.

But the first hint of movement didn't come until late last month when Obama met with about 30 lawmakers. Though some immigrant rights advocates praised the meeting and Obama's vow to take up the issue this year, others complain he's been too vague on his plans.

"People are disappointed that things haven't moved further," said University of California, Los Angeles professor Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda. "They're beginning to organize their own set of priorities."

At this week's annual convention in Chicago of one of the country's largest Hispanic advocacy organizations — the National Council of La Raza — attendees got tips on how to lobby lawmakers.

During a session called "Take Your Advocacy to the Next Level! Getting Immigration Reform Done," panelists specializing in political strategy told activists to create a "power analysis" of their U.S. Congress members including finding out their political donors, stances on immigration and core values. That informationcould help activists make a more well-informed pitch when lobbying, the panel said.

For example, activists could target Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, of North Carolina, who has advocated for families and is a working mom, the panelists said. With that in mind, they could press her on the issue of keeping immigrant families together, they said.

On the ground, activists are getting a jump start on such efforts. One group in Chicago, United Front for Immigrants, has drafted its own legislation proposal that gives lawmakers specific ideas to reform immigration including ways to "decriminalize the status of being undocumented." For example, instead of deporting illegal immigrants who have no criminal background, the proposal suggests alternative punishments like community service.

In Los Angeles, some advocacy groups are calling back voters who said before the 2008 election that immigration reform was a priority and are encouraging them to hound legislators with phone calls ahead of the 2010 elections, said Angelica Salas, the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

"We've been doing a lot of local work with our local elected officials so they understand that there is a voting constituency that wants reform," Salas said.

But the activists' plight is hampered as many immigrant communities face steep unemployment, and the numerous advocacy groups lack a unified approach to reform.

Instead of focusing on lobbying, one Chicago-based group, Centro Sin Fronteras, is focusing on putting an end to immigrant raids that often result in deportations. The group has helped host a listening tour in dozens of cities across the country where families share personal experiences on deportations and other issues. The tour is expected to continue through the fall.

"We're not giving up," said Emma Lozano, who heads the Chicago-based Centro Sin Fronteras. "We're going to get this, this year."