WASHINGTON — Just last year, an increasingly powerful grass-roots movement celebrated its success in killing an effort to legalize millions of unlawful immigrants. Its influence spread as a procession of presidential candidates proclaimed their support.
But now there are just two candidates for the nation's top office, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). And both have taken immigration stands that restrictionist groups find appalling.
Although heavily supported and highly organized, those who oppose illegal immigration suddenly find themselves without a champion.
"That's the reality we're dealing with: a choice we don't consider a choice," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which advocates stricter controls on legal and illegal immigration. "These two guys were pretty much at the bottom of all the candidates. They're the worst, the bottom of the barrel, that ended up winning."
But a loose coalition of activist groups has rejected the prospect of sitting out the presidential campaign, or waiting until next time.
Instead, groups have begun working to hem in the future president. They have pushed for new city and state laws, helping spur hundreds of bills around the country in the last three months. They've held conferences to educate members nationwide and lobby local officials. And they're promoting the election of congressional candidates who take a hard line on immigration.
The strategy is to reshape the national political landscape to fend off future liberalization proposals.
"We're doing everything we can to dig in, in the states and in Congress," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee.
The picture looked much rosier a few months ago, as far as these groups were concerned. The field of Republican presidential candidates included two -- Reps. Duncan Hunter of Alpine and Tom Tancredo of Colorado -- who ran campaigns based largely on their opposition to illegal immigration.
But Obama and McCain are seen as generally indistinguishable on the issue. McCain, while toughening his stance recently, has backed proposals providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Obama favors a similar mix of enforcement and legalization.
"The chances of influencing one of these two guys to take a pro-worker, pro-environment position are very low," said Beck. However, "bringing public pressure to bear to not dismantle enforcement and improve border security has some chance of success."
Some of the groups working on that goal are tightly aligned, sharing office space and funding. Others share advice and occasionally cooperate. Most are ramping up efforts.
The staff of the Immigration Reform Law Institute has been working since 2002 to aid state legislators concerned about illegal immigration. Every step of the way, there have been legal challenges to the bills they have written, said institute director Michael M. Hethmon, and with each challenge, they've found ways to make their bills stronger.
"We were constantly learning," Hethmon said.
His group and Gheen's Americans for Legal Immigration have developed a state- level legislative package that requires businesses to verify the legality of new employees, bans public aid for illegal immigrants, and makes it a felony to transport an illegal immigrant.
They have helped turn that package into tough state-level immigration laws by offering their help for free. The Immigration Reform Law Institute has worked on bills in Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi and Colorado, as well as South Carolina, where colleges now bar illegal immigrants. The organization's efforts in Michigan, Indiana and Florida failed this year, but other initiatives are underway. At least 1,106 measures related to immigration were considered in 44 states in the first quarter of 2008, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-four states passed 44 laws and 38 resolutions. Not all of those measures sought to crack down on illegal immigrants, but many were influenced by the Immigration Reform Law Institute or affiliated groups.
"We see this state and local activity as not only effective in itself . . . but there's also the long effect as, one by one, these states line up," Hethmon said. "As these jurisdictions confront this issue, it builds up a positive and helpful kind of pressure on Congress."
NumbersUSA concentrates on elections but soon will expand its work to legislation, Beck said. For now, the group tracks the immigration positions of every candidate in every race and assigns them a grade that is distributed monthly to the organization's 640,000 members. Beck boasted that NumbersUSA had an average of 1,300 members per congressional district. But he added: "We need more participation on the ground."
To that end, Beck is looking for fundraisers and local leaders in preparation for November's congressional races. He argued that a Democratic Congress "doesn't necessarily mean bad things for us."
Some freshman Democrats who won seats from Republicans are tough on illegal immigration because "they need a way to show people that they're different from the party leadership," he said.
Beck once saw the same split among Republicans. Though the Bush administration and much of the party leadership backed changes that would legalize illegal immigrants, other Republicans shifted to a stricter stance.
"We've spent the last seven years separating the Republican back bench from the party leadership with tremendous success," said Beck, who said his sights are now on the Democrats. "We'll continue to push that line hard."