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Fighting back on immigration

Bipartisan reform efforts in Congress may be dead for now, but activists should try grass-roots efforts.

March 27, 2010

Talk about whiplash. A week ago, tens of thousands of activists were traveling to the National Mall in Washington to insist that President Obama keep his campaign promise and champion comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Fifty thousand people had registered for the march. Organizers anticipated that as many as 100,000 would show up. In the end, they said, double that number arrived. It was part protest, part party. The marchers may have been drawn by their frustration with the president's inaction, but the mood often verged on euphoric. Many tweeted their optimism in 140-word updates and seemed confident of success. With reason.

Even before the marchers got to Washington, the pressure worked. Obama met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and activists from across the country. Just three days before the demonstration, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) released a framework for comprehensive reform that they had been working on for months. It provided for tough enforcement and required undocumented immigrants to atone for breaking the law by paying fines, doing community service and learning English. As activists demanded, Obama embraced the proposal and said it would be the basis for comprehensive legislation to be submitted this year.

It was one success after another, until 7:45 Sunday night. That's when the 216th Democratic vote for healthcare reform was recorded, Republican fury was unleashed, and bipartisanship was declared to be at an end. Passing immigration legislation this year was always going to be an uphill fight, but now it will take a miracle. Graham said "the well has been poisoned" by Democrats.

What to do next? Shift gears. Presidential disengagement may no longer be a serious obstacle to reform. But having Obama on board is not enough. President George W. Bush fought hard for reform; polls showed strong public support for comprehensive legislation, about 60 Republicans in Congress sided with him -- and still he was checkmated by conservative opponents.

A small but vocal, sign-wielding minority that insists on being heard can capture the nation's attention. It's time for immigration activists to take a leaf from the "birthers," "tea partyers" and "death panel" fear-mongers. Going to Washington was important, as is Saturday's march in Los Angeles. But it's at least as important that supporters of reform go back to their own states, cities and neighborhoods to begin a grass-roots campaign to explain to their fellow citizens the positive effects comprehensive immigration legislation will have on their lives, labor, economy and communities.

Immigration reform is politically unpopular, but it is right and it is necessary. Let's hope that the recent marches are followed by the critically important next steps that will help this movement grow.

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