Melanie Reynard

Immigration Reform Groups Strategize for Presidential Campaign

As the election campaign gathers steam, immigrant rights groups are paying attention to what the candidates are saying (and not saying) when it comes to immigration. In a teleconference organized by New America Media, three spokespeople from major immigrant rights groups defined their priorities for the presidential campaign and beyond.

Recent polls suggest immigration is not necessarily the number one issue for the general election, but that it is a wedge issue and one that could increase in importance as the campaign progresses. For example, it can be key in states with large Latino populations, such as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. Several Asian American organizations are seeking to mobilize Asian American voters in ten states (Hawaii, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington and New York).

The groups are paying close attention to the candidates' statements on the campaign trail and trying to determine what legislative opportunities exist. Ali Noorani, the newly appointed head of the National Immigration Forum, emphasized the important role the media plays in "shining a very clear light on Senator McCain and Obama's statements." Holding candidates accountable for their statements is crucial as they become more caught up in the fervor of campaign rhetoric, with "Senator McCain one day saying something nice about immigration reform when he is speaking to Latinos, but the next day saying something negative," Noorani said. The media needs to closely monitor for consistency because "the next six months defines what we may very well achieve as we head into 2009 with a new Congress and a new administration," according to Noorani.

Karen Narasaki, President and Executive Director of the Asian American Justice Center, called Senator McCain's current focus on enforcement a misguided approach. His "comprehensive" approach from two years ago was preferable, she said. The most worrisome snafu in the immigration system that is the backlog, with almost four million people estimated to be waiting, according to Narasaki.

"Every year there is a set amount of visas that are available," she explained. "If they don't get used, they don't roll over into the future. They just disappear and die. State departments get backed up in processing those visas, and if they don't get allocated, they just die. The least we can do is work on the visas that were allocated in the current system." For Asian Americans, there is a backlog of five to six years, and for Mexican nationals, there is a seven to 10 year wait if you are the spouse or minor child of a permanent legal resident, Narasaki added.

According to Narasaki, these statistics are unacceptable. "You cannot sustain that. You cannot keep families separated for that long." Visa recapture legislation such as H.R. 5882, is "one of the few bills that have the actual opportunity of getting done this year because of bipartisan support." Narasaki said this is also an opportunity to hold Congress' "feet to the fire" and see if those who claim that they are for immigrants, just against illegal immigration, really mean what they say.

Legislation to clear the backlog of bureaucracy is much needed, as the current failure of national reform has left local municipalities grappling with a patchwork quilt of shortsighted attempts at solutions. Clarissa Martinez, Senior Director of State and Local Advocacy Policy for the National Council of La Raza, remarked that the "failure of comprehensive immigration reform has caused the shift to many state and local bodies trying to intervene on the issue, which we think are chaotic results."

"Instead of one set of policy to deal with immigration," she said, "we have multiple county and city governments trying to deal with issue." Over the last two years, local pundits and nativist groups have fabricated a "conventional wisdom" that a politician must be either evasive or punitive with regards to immigration, she said. But she hoped that the tremendous energy in immigrant communities could be used to change that.

Ali Noorani suggested immigrant rights groups are "not only focusing on candidates themselves, but the apparatus around candidates and local campaign offices. The more and more we are able to infiltrate these campaigns with requests and demands from the community, the more they see it as their demand they need to represent what they are hearing back to candidate."

Noorani said he was not afraid that a piecemeal approach to immigration reform now might actually hurt the chances of comprehensive immigration reform later. The xenophobia and anti-immigration laws of the last 20 years must be demolished gradually, Noorani said, and it would be a false assumption to believe that one legislative win would sufficiently dismantle that wall of anti-immigration legal precedent. "Now we have earned the ability to remove that wall piece by piece," he added.

Editor's note: this piece has been corrected after publication.

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