Immigration Reformers Are Winning August

NumbersUSA has alerted its members to 181 past events, with 70 more scheduled for this week and 142 still to come, involving more than 100 Republican members of Congress. Members have reported back to the group that they felt they were in the majority at 90 percent of the events, Beck told me, based on the way the audience rumbled and booed.

As for the poorly attended Richmond rally, Beck acknowledged it was disappointing, but blamed the lack of turnout on a bad location choice. "We picked a spot that, it turns out, has the highest homicide rate in the city, and apparently a lot of people were afraid to come," he said. Beck seemed to associate this danger with the African-American population: "We wanted to be there at a place where we could talk about the huge population of descendants of slavery who have never yet been part of the American Dream," he said. "But sometimes passion and principles get in the way of practicality."

Beck admitted that his side is not as galvanized as activists were in May of 2007, when an outpouring of grassroots anger -- directed by NumbersUSA -- helped derail the last immigration-reform push. But that's because reform has less chance of passing this time, so activists are less concerned, he said. "This year, it's very much like there's a wildfire out there coming for your town, but everybody knows there's a reservoir between the fire and your town, and that's the House of Representatives," he said. "Everybody has been told by the media the bill is dead on arrival in the House."

In any case, Beck said, all the rallies in the world won't do reform advocates any good if Republican members of Congress aren't taking positions in favor of reform, and that's not happening in a major way. McCarthy said he was for a piecemeal approach, with border security coming first. Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais, confronted by an 11-year-old girl whose father faces deportation, told her it was brave of her to speak, but "we have laws, and we need to follow those laws," to applause from the audience. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee is something of a gatekeeper for immigration policy, reiterated that he does not believe the undocumented should get a "special pathway to citizenship" not available to would-be legal immigrants.

"August is so much more important to the pro-[comprehensive immigration reform] side than to us," Beck said. "They really had to change a lot of minds. Our job is to hold people where they are .... We're just feeling that the line has been held."

Advocates of immigration reform say Beck is moving the goalposts. They count 23 Republican members of Congress who have come out in support of a path to citizenship, including many for the first time this month.

"I knew we were going to do really well [mobilizing people]; I just didn't think the other side wouldn't show up," said Frank Sharry, the longtime immigration-reform advocate who heads America's Voice. "In 2007, they were formidable. You could argue they kicked our ass. They generated a huge volume of opposition to the bill, and it was a big factor in our defeat."

To Sharry, the rapidly forming takeaway from this August's political-organizing battle is that opponents of immigration reform are a paper tiger.

Before the recess, "there was a sense that immigration reform was going to be a hot topic, and Republicans would come back telling leadership we want no part of it," Sharry said. "If anything, you have more and more members saying, 'We've got to do this.' That's a surprising and welcome development."

Sharry agreed with Beck that attendance at town halls is not the same as votes in Congress. But, he said, "I think it shows that at this point, the forces for reform -- left, right, and center -- are much stronger than the forces opposing reform. I think we're more likely to come into September with momentum than they are, and that's not what many would have predicted just a few short weeks ago."

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

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