WASHINGTON – An enthusiastic clamor of supporters rallied for immigration reform at a June 4 town hall meeting, though a subtext of frustration arose around the postponement of a meeting with President Barack Obama.
Advocates from 31 states gathered at the Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill to build support for comprehensive immigration reform legislation. It was one part of events launching the Reform Immigration for America Campaign, a national effort bringing together grass-roots organizations, labor unions, business interests and faith-based communities to support a revamped immigration policy.
Proponents filled the seats, lined the walls and stood at the back of the church to hear personal testimonies from individuals and families on how the current policy is affecting their lives and why reform is not only necessary but urgent. Signs reading “Reforms Not Raids” were held up as supporters chanted “Yes we can” in five different languages.
Robert Cote of the Florida Immigrant Coalition spoke about his wife, Rita, an immigrant from Honduras, who was arrested and jailed for nine days without being charged as a result of what he called harsh enforcement policies.
“She was trying to translate for my sister-in-law, her sister, who was telling police about her abusive relationship,” Cote explained to the listeners.
“You could see the bruises on her neck. Police chose to ignore the domestic dispute to focus on my wife’s immigration status instead,” he said. Police had found a deportation order issued when she entered the country as a minor 10 years earlier.
Cote, a U.S. citizen and Army veteran, received a phone call from his 7-year-old son telling him that the police had taken his mother. She has since been released but must wear an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor her whereabouts. Cote closed by saying, “I fought in war for this country and I’m going to fight this war for my family and all the immigrants.”
The meeting centered on the urgency to act. At a June 3 press conference that officially launched the national campaign, speakers affirmed their confidence that legislation will get moving this year, citing Obama’s campaign assertion that immigration reform is a top priority for his administration. They said the position helped popularize him among Hispanics in the election.
But an unanticipated announcement that the White House had postponed a summit between the president and reform advocates because of scheduling conflicts generated some mixed feelings at the town hall meeting.
The Rev. Freddy Santiago, pastor of Fellowship Flock Church in Chicago, expressed frustration when he addressed the crowd.
“When the Lord calls from the cries of his people, it’s time to answer,” he said. “We hoped President Obama and leaders would set a timetable but yesterday the meeting was postponed from June 8 to June 17. His campaign urged that ‘the time is now’ but when the time comes there is a delay.”
His said frustration lay not just with the president but politicians who continuously break promises. He said hearing promises without mention of a timeline was not progress, and that he hoped Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who he was introducing, would call Obama out on this.
The continuous push for comprehensive immigration reform has lasted for more than a decade, according to Gutierrez but despite the delay, he said he is still hopeful.
“Now, more are watching us. Maybe this is divine intervention,” he said. He added that he hopes the postponement will give the cause more exposure and generate more support.
Other than the newly scheduled date of the meeting between lawmakers and advocates, details about who would participate remained unclear.
Gutierrez noted that neither he nor Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a leading proponent of immigration reform, had yet to be formally invited to the meeting. He credited the press for providing him with the only information he had so far about it.
The next day at the closing luncheon of a three-day conference of 800 organizers, Cecilia Munoz, director of intergovernmental affairs for the White House, said Obama is committed to pushing comprehensive immigration reform this year, as he said during the presidential campaign and numerous times since then.
“I have a message for you,” said Munoz, a former vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a leading promoter of immigration reform. “We want to get this job done. This is not for show.”
Munoz said she was frustrated “by the set of false assumptions” that Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina, was named because doing so “checks off a box” of political obligations to Hispanic voters and immigration reform would now be shelved.
“He chose Sonia Sotomayor because she is brilliant, talented and experienced, more experienced than any other nominee in 100 years,” Munoz said.
Similarly, she added, Obama signed the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, signed the economic recovery act legislation and proposed the federal budget he did so on the merits of those measures, not because he owed anything to the people they would benefit.
The president’s commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is based on the merits of the of the issue, she said, and urged the organizers at the conference to “clear a pathway” for a bill that Congress can pass and he can sign.