Latino Leaders Planning Push for Immigration Bill

Published by: New York Times

NEW ORLEANS — Latinos gathered here this week for a major annual convention said they would use their new political influence to press the House of Representatives for a vote this year on a broad immigration bill and mobilize support for House Republicans who take the risk of backing it.

More than 5,000 Latinos from community groups came to the conference of NCLR, the nation's largest Hispanic organization, which is also known as the National Council of La Raza. Facing fading momentum in Washington on immigration, the leaders said they were heading to the fight this fall with their rank and file intensely motivated and more united than ever.

"Fear, denigration, abuse: those are words that resonate with our community, particularly when it comes to immigration," Janet Murguía, the president of NCLR, said in a speech on Monday.

She said the travails of millions of immigrants without legal status were widely affecting Latino neighborhoods, making them feel besieged the way African-Americans did during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Illegal immigrants, she said, were vulnerable to wage discrimination, sexual attack in the workplace, even theft when they cash their paychecks, since many do not have bank accounts.

While most of those in NCLR are citizens who have been in the United States for years, if not generations, community leaders here said that Republican advocacy last year of "self-deportation" for immigrants who are here illegally was offensive and heightened their personal identification with those immigrants.

They said that legislation including some pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants in the country was a "threshold issue" that Republicans would have to cross to start to win back large numbers of Latino voters.

"We are all family," said Rick Olmos, a leader of A.P.M., a Puerto Rican group in Philadelphia. "Latinos who are undocumented are still part of our community, and we will take care of each other."

An immigration overhaul bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support last month, and the debate is now moving slowly in the Republican-controlled House. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Tuesday to explore legislation to give legal status to an estimated 1.7 million young immigrants who came here as children. But the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, has made it clear no votes will happen before Congress recesses in August.

A bipartisan group of seven House lawmakers is continuing work on a broad bill similar to the Senate's, and Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is part of that group and is a fervent advocate of citizenship for illegal immigrants, assured conference participants on Monday that they would introduce it in September. Mr. Boehner has said most House Republicans prefer to handle the issue in smaller, "bite-size chunks" of legislation.

Since the Senate vote, conservative Republicans opposing any legalization have seen a burst of support, and they are seeking to stop the House from passing any bill that could be matched with the Senate's in negotiations between the chambers.

Ms. Murguía, whose main job as the head of NCLR is to oversee a large organization with nearly 300 local operations including health clinics, charter schools and community development corporations, is not known as a firebrand. But she became emotional when speaking of the more than 1.4 million deportations under the Obama administration.

"I have seen the devastation of families in the wake of deportation," Ms. Murguía said."I know in my heart it is long past time for this to end," she said, to applause.

Because of its full name — the National Council of La Raza — which harks back to its earliest era in the 1970s of scrappy community organizing and polarized ethnic disputes, many politicians in Washington still think of NCLR as Latino radicals. At the conference, the group's mainstream approach, bordering on staid, was on full display. Major sponsors of the gathering included Walmart, Shell, Hilton Worldwide, JPMorgan Chase and Toyota.

Michelle Obama gave the keynote address at the conference on Tuesday. Talking about her campaign to reduce childhood obesity, she also assured the crowd that President Obama would not give up until he had signed an immigration bill.

In an interview, Ms. Murguía said the "silver lining" in the immigration debate had been that it erased sometimes sharp differences between Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans and other Latino groups in different regions of the country. "The attacks on our larger Latino family has been unifying and galvanizing for us," she said.

The attention in Washington to immigration this year has vindicated a decision by NCLR leaders before the 2012 elections to focus major resources for the first time on Latino voting. The organization registered more than 100,000 voters and helped many hundreds of thousands get to the polls, leaders said. The wide Latino margin in favor of Mr. Obama was credited with swinging the election for him in several states. The Latino electorate continues to grow much faster than the overall voting public.

Latino leaders said their focus now was on winning over House Republicans. The group has identified 26 districts, mainly in California, Texas, Florida and New York, where in coming months Latinos will pressure Republicans to hold a vote in the House and to support broad legislation with a path to citizenship. The plan is to reward lawmakers who come around.

"Our community is very interested in seeing Republicans who step up for us get the credit they deserve," said Clarissa Martinez-de-Castro, the top NCLR organizer of the immigration campaign.

She said Latinos were aware that they would not succeed on their own, and were coordinating closely with business, evangelical Christian and labor groups to divide up the country to maximize the effort. Speakers from the National Association of Manufacturers, among other business groups, featured prominently at the conference.

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