Are Liberals Turning on Immigration Reform?

The legislation's lesser-known drama: Protecting its left flank from jittery advocates who worry it is too conservative.
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The Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill Thursday that now faces an uncertain future. In the weeks ahead, the central challenge for immigration reformers will be finding a path through the Republican-led House. But behind the scenes, they are also scrambling to shore up support from liberals who see the current legislation as too slanted toward border security and away from citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The angst has come in the wake of the deal that secured the bill's wide margin of Senate passage. The bipartisan Gang of Eight senators reached a deal on an amendment from two Republican senators, Bob Corker and John Hoeven, that would throw an unprecedented amount of resources at the southern border -- nearly $20 billion and 20,000 border agents, plus 700 miles of border fence. Corker called it "almost overkill"; to activists, there was no "almost" about it. The deal was made on a Thursday, June 20, and the immigrant-rights groups spent the weekend and the early days of this week anguishing over whether they could still back the bill.

By the time the Senate bill passed, two major advocacy groups, Presente.org and the Border Network for Human Rights, had turned against it. The Border Network issued a statement titled, "This bill doesn't represent us any longer," and called the bill "a promise of abuse, violation and death" for residents of border communities.

"It really was one of those moments for the [immigration reform] movement where people took a deep breath and started analyzing whether it was still worth moving forward with the bill," said Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice for the Center for Community Change, a grassroots coalition. "There was soul-searching and a lot of painful conversations."

After a "very intense stretch" of "anger and handwringing," advocates from across the country joined a Sunday evening conference call arranged by the Alliance for Citizenship, said veteran immigration advocate Frank Sharry, founder of America's Voice. Two Gang of Eight Democrats, Senators Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez, joined the call; more than 500 lines were opened, and grievances were forcefully aired.

"The Corker-Hoeven amendment really angered many activists in the immigration-reform movement," Sharry said. "It rocked the boat pretty significantly on the left. Most groups still want to go forward, but some said, 'No, it's too far.'"

The activists' objections are twofold -- one policy-based, another tactical. On policy, they decry the further militarization of the border that the legislation would cause, making border communities' lives difficult, hurting border economies, and leading to civil-rights violations and abuses. On tactics, they worry that their side has already conceded too much in the bill's fundamental exchange between Democrats who want citizenship for undocumented immigrants and Republicans who want more impediments to illegal immigration. Yet the House, if it heeds the Senate bill at all, is likely to see it as a starting point that the Republican-controlled chamber must temper by making it still more conservative.

Most of the groups remain reluctantly supportive of the overall bill even as they condemn the Corker-Hoeven amendment. A group called 18 Million Rising issued a statement saying the amendment "will only further hurt immigrants, families, and the economy by making the path to citizenship more onerous and expensive, and by exacerbating the climate of fear created by criminalization and overreaching surveillance." It was joined by MoveOn.org, Credo Action, and United We Dream in its stance.

Sharry said he understood the groups' anger but feared the bill wouldn't pass at all without the Corker-Hoeven amendment. There was also a competing border-security amendment, backed by Senator John Cornyn, that Democrats and immigration-reform advocates could not support. "If we had said 'vote no' and Democrats had listened, it could take down the whole bill," Sharry said. "You can say you hate the amendment, but if we're successful in peeling off Democrats, we could sink the whole thing." In the end, the bill got the backing of all 54 Democrats in the Senate.

Today, the Senate bill is a done deal, loathed amendment and all, and the action, or lack thereof, is in the House, where Speaker John Boehner has sent conflicting signals about what he plans to do. So why does the liberal groups' angst matter, given that the major difficulty ahead lies in getting conservative Republicans to back reform? There are a couple of reasons.

First, just as the Republicans in the House tend to be more conservative than their Senate counterparts, the Democrats tend to be more liberal. If anything resembling the Senate bill comes up for a House vote, some Democrats might refuse to back it. Second, immigration advocates' strategy now involves putting grassroots pressure on Republicans; activists will be harder to mobilize if they're not enthusiastic about the legislation they're pushing.

Now, advocates are focused on protecting their remaining turf. "There is a sense of militancy on the part of immigrant-rights advocates, that this is enough," Matos said. "This was a bitter pill to swallow, and we can't take any more."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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