DENVER (AP) — Late last year members of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition acknowledged that there was little hope Congress would pass much-anticipated legislation granting citizenship to people in the U.S. illegally. So the group stopped lobbying for the bill and shifted to a different approach.
Six of its activists last month chained themselves across the entrance to the Travis County jail near Austin to protest its participation in a federal program to find people here illegally, part of a growing effort to focus on stopping deportations. It has made strides. Just last week, President Barack Obama directed administration officials to review how people are shipped out of the country.
Many immigrant groups are still pushing for a bill to grant citizenship to many of the 11 million people here illegally. But Republican House Speaker John Boehner has said that legislation is unlikely to be passed in the GOP-led House, at least this year.
"We decided we needed to change our focus because (curbing deportations locally) is a more winnable campaign," said Alejandro Laceres, executive director of the Austin group.
"We need relief and we need it soon," said Reyna Montoya, 23, of Phoenix, whose father is fighting deportation and who co-wrote an open letter with dozens of activists urging immigrant rights groups to stand down on the citizenship issue. "People who are directly affected just want peace. Later on they'll worry about becoming citizens."
The increasingly aggressive, decentralized campaign contrasts with last year's unified push that resulted in a bipartisan Senate bill to overhaul the nation's immigration system — a proposal that never came up for a vote in the House. It also carries the risks of a backlash.
"One picture of a cop with a bloody nose and it's all over for these people," Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors greater restrictions on immigration, said of the activists.
The change comes after many expected Congress to pass a sweeping immigration overhaul last year. Republicans have been torn between some in their base who want to step up deportations and others alarmed at how Hispanics, Asians and other fast-growing communities are increasingly leaning Democratic.
The Senate in June passed its bill to legalize, and eventually grant citizenship to, many of the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. But the bill died in the Republican-controlled House. Republican leaders there floated a proposal that would have made some systematic changes but would have stopped short of granting citizenship for large numbers of people here illegally. But Boehner, R-Ohio, acknowledged that it stood little chance of passing.
Meanwhile, Obama's administration is on track to having deported 2 million people during the past six years. Critics say that's more than President George W. Bush's administration deported, though some who push for a tougher immigration policy argue the current administration's numbers are inflated.
Obama already has eased some deportations. In 2012, as he was trying to generate enthusiasm among Hispanic voters for his re-election, Obama granted people who were brought to the country illegally as children the right to work in the United States and gave them administrative protection from deportation if they had graduated high school or served in the military. Advocates are pressuring the president to expand that to other people here illegally. The administration has said it cannot make sweeping changes without Congress, and it is unclear what steps it will take to make deportations more "humane" after its review is finished.
Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said it's inevitable that Obama makes changes. "This is a White House that has told the immigrant rights community that they had to build up enforcement massively to create the political climate for comprehensive immigration reform," Newman said. "Well, that gambit failed."
Roy Beck of Numbers USA, which pushes for a more restrictive immigration policy, said expanding deportation relief could also fail. "It looks radical," he said of the notion of sharply limiting removals.
Activists are willing to take that risk.
In Arizona, activists have launched a series of protests, including blocking buses transporting immigrants to courts. "We just realized we are losing too many people in our community," Carlos Garcia of the group Puente Arizona said in a telephone interview minutes before he was arrested outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Phoenix. Worries about whether their tactics could cause a backlash "go out the window," he added. "Our heads hurt from thinking about the politics around it."
At the state level, activists have had notable successes. The biggest victory came last year in California when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Trust Act, barring California police from participating in Secure Communities. Immigrant rights groups are trying to replicate that legislation in Illinois and Massachusetts.
Driving the efforts are cases like that of Abel Bautista, who was stopped for traveling 8 miles per hour over the speed limit on a Colorado interstate in 2012 and has been fighting deportation ever since. At first he was not too worried, because he expected an immigration overhaul last year to make the case moot. Now he worries about the lack of legislative action and the trauma inflicted on his three U.S. citizen children as his case drags on.
"We're just left hanging at loose ends," Bautista said in an interview, recounting how his children's performance at school has deteriorated and how they sob when he leaves for court hearings. "If the community unifies and has more demonstrations, maybe they will listen to us," he said.
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