Immigration Reformers Are Winning August

Opponents of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants had a plan to apply grassroots pressure on congressional Republicans in their home districts. Why did it fizzle?
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Activists lead a march in favor of immigration reform in Sacramento, California, last week. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Activists opposed to immigration reform were all set to spend this month putting pressure on lawmakers to kill the legislation. But it hasn't exactly been a show of force.

Last week, the Tea Party Patriots and NumbersUSA, two groups opposed to "amnesty" legislation, heavily publicized a rally in Richmond, Virginia, featuring Steve King, the firebrand Republican congressman who recently claimed most undocumented youth are physically fit drug mules. But only a few dozen people showed up -- far short of the hundreds organizers had planned for.

Journalists posted photos of a lonely-looking King under a gazebo in a mostly empty public park. A reporter for Breitbart News, Matthew Boyle, tweeted, "If grassroots wants to kill #Amnesty they have to show up. #teaparty they are not here in Richmond."

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@seungminkim/Twitter

Activists on both sides of the immigration debate had put heavy emphasis on the importance of flexing grassroots muscle during this month of congressional recess. The idea is to show Republicans in the House of Representatives, which hasn't settled on a path forward on the issue, where the most passionate support lies. And as August winds down, the Richmond event seems indicative of the overall trend. Hundreds of immigrant advocates have appeared at rallies and town halls across the country. But the other side, the opponents, have been mostly absent.

Hundreds of reform advocates recently rallied at the Bakersfield, California, office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP whip. (A local television station put the number at "more than 1,000"; Breitbart reported it was about 400, mostly "Mexican in origin," and noted the presence of "about two dozen counter-demonstrators.") More than 500 pro-reform activists, including the mayor of Springfield, Ohio, and local clergy, showed up at Speaker John Boehner's district office. The Washington Times counted about 60 pro-reform activists calling on Rep. Frank Wolf in Herndon, Virginia. They marched through the streets of Asheboro, North Carolina, and gathered alongside the Catholic diocese in Salt Lake City. In Corpus Christi, Texas, a Republican congressman, Blake Farenthold, took to Twitter to beseech opponents to show up and counter the 10,000 pro-reform petitions that activists delivered to his office.

Anti-immigration-reform groups were hard pressed to come up with evidence of similar grassroots fervor for their side. Indeed, many of the examples they cited seemed to show the opposite. A NumbersUSA organizer passed along footage from a town hall where Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins was asked repeatedly about immigration; all the questioners in the clip are pro-reform, but booing rumbles through the crowd as they speak. At a town hall for Rep. Karen Bass, the California Democrat is asked about an unrelated piece of legislation that would deport "illegal alien gang members" (and explains why she opposes it). In Elkhorn, Nebraska, Republican Lee Terry is asked, "Will we see a path to citizenship in the immigration bill?" as DREAM Act activists are shown in a local television report.

Anti-reform groups appear to be canceling events for lack of participation. The Tea Party Patriots once boasted of summer rallies in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Dallas; and South Carolina, but they've disappeared from the calendar on the group's website. Another anti-immigration-reform group, the Black American Leadership Alliance, had planned a nine-city "We Are America Tour," but had to drop half the stops. "Dear friends, it is with deep regret that I must inform you all that we had to drop several rallies," an organizer wrote on Facebook, in a post that has since been removed but was spotted and preserved by the pro-reform group America's Voice. "We were unable to get organizers for the following: Miami, FL., Chicago, IL., Roanoke, VA., and Wisconsin. The Ohio rally is still going to happen, but not under the "Tour" title. FAIR is leading that rally. That leaves us with 4 rallies. Phoenix, AZ. Richmond, VA. And rallies in Houston, and Dallas, TX. Even the rallies in Houston, and Richmond, VA, are not completely confirmed at this time."

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Courtesy of America's Voice

FAIR stands for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that opposes legal and illegal immigration. In a Washington Post article last week, the group's communications director acknowledged being outgunned by activists for the other side. "It's a staggering, well-financed hard push by the left and the right," Bob Dane told the Post.

A Black American Leadership Alliance representative was unavailable for comment. The Tea Party Patriots' national coordinator, Jenny Beth Martin, told me the disappearing rallies were not "set in stone," so their listings were removed until they could be finalized. Martin also told ABC News that Tea Party activists are more focused on the push to defund Obamacare than on defeating immigration reform. Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, which claims to be the largest grassroots group against citizenship for undocumented immigrants, previously told me his group was gearing up for a major August mobilization, but in an interview Monday he denied that was ever the goal. "We did not try to organize anything massive," he said.

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

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