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April 18, 2014

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Syria debate pushes immigration off the House’s agenda

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

From left, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, listen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria.

For immigration advocates, September was supposed to be the month.

A national network of immigrants rights groups had set the end of this month as a deadline for the House of Representatives to respond to years of protests and pleas by passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

For a while, it looked like Congress might just be responsive, picking up immigration reform as a top item when they returned to Washington, D.C. this coming week.

Then, there was Syria -- and everything in Washington came to a screeching halt.

“Momentum is everything. It’s key,” said Bob Fulkerson, state director of Progressive Leadership Action Nevada, which has campaigned heavily for comprehensive immigration reform. “This thing in Syria happened, and it has kind of derailed things temporarily.”

For the past week, Congress has been singularly focused on preparing to vote on a measure to authorize military strikes on targets in Syria, where American, French and British intelligence services have determined that Syrian President Bashar Assad used deadly chemical weapons on his own civilian population.

The Syria frenzy is commanding lawmakers’ full attention in what was already expected to be a very busy fall. Congress must pass a budget and another debt ceiling extension in the next several weeks -- already a lot to squeeze into the nine days that the House of Representatives was planning to be in session during September.

Looking at the mounting schedule, many don’t see where Congress will find the time for immigration.

“It’s a very tall order to do immigration in September,” said Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “You need to approve an extension of the budget, a debt ceiling increase. We all love miracles, but...the poor immigration bill is in trouble.”

Congressional leaders have responded to the hand-wringing from immigration advocates by dismissing their concerns.

“This debate on Syria is going to take place and it will be over very quickly,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a Tuesday appearance on Telemundo Vegas. “That will have no impact on our ability to do immigration.”

But the Syria vote isn’t going as smoothly as everybody expected.

The Senate is expected to take up a resolution to authorize limited strikes on Sept. 11 -- the day after President Barack Obama will publicly plead his case for Syria on a nationally televised address.

The House, however, hasn’t committed to taking a vote; already, more than half of the House’s members are expected to vote against an authorization, despite both Republican and Democratic leaders’ support for the strike plans.

Should the debate go long, it has the potential to upset even the most optimistic of calendars -- all of which is frustrating immigration advocates.

“It’s only Sept. 6th -- that gives us a good 25 days to bring immigration up and do it, and we should be able to hold their feet to the fire on this deadline,” Fulkerson said. “So, how do we get heard above the drumbeat of war to keep this in the scope of our plans?”

At this point, immigrant advocates are turning to an old strategy: When no one’s paying attention at the top, ramp up the pressure on the grassroots level.

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A Jordanian man, left, chants anti-President Bashar Assad slogans as a police officer pushes him away to separate him from opposing protesters from the Jordanian Communist Party and other leftist groups against any American military strike against Damascus, in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.

Immigrant advocates spent much of the August recess holding events, prayer vigils, and staging demonstrations in support of immigration reform. Most did not grab the lead spot of national news broadcasts, but the effort yielded some results: During the recess period, Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., promised to support a pathway to citizenship in the context of an immigration bill, and Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said he thought the Senate’s framework for granting citizenship to immigrants not legally in the U.S. was “reasonable.”

Those lawmakers now want to be sure their constituents know that immigration hasn’t fallen out of their sight just because their minds are more focused on Syria.

“There’s a little bit of a momentum shift with the Syria debate -- I would assume that when we get back the Syria debate will take precedence,” said Heck spokesman Greg Lemon. “But everything’s always happening on parallel tracks. I wouldn’t want it to seem like he’s putting immigration on the back burner.”

For their part, immigration advocates like Fulkerson are warning lawmakers such as Heck that temporary demands on time aside, immigration will resonate with constituents more than Syria.

“You know, the people in this country whose lives are at stake, whose families are at stake, people feel that -- it’s so much more urgent in terms of their daily lives,” Fulkerson said, comparing the constituent interest in immigration to Syria. “[Syria] shouldn’t slow things down too much at all. It shouldn’t be used as an excuse -- if it’s used as an excuse for slowing things down then people will see right through it.”

But the matter may be out of their hands.

Immigration is the one major item on the fall agenda that is not compulsory, as passing a federal budget, raising the national debt limit, and responding to a president’s call to arms with a yea or nay vote are.

Unfortunately for immigration hopefuls, all the compulsory items on Congress’ agenda also could threaten to sour the careful camaraderie that individual lawmakers have tried to foster around immigration reform.

“The problem is that, even if they find room for cooperation over Syria, the vote starts to split up the parties,” Lokken said, referencing how anti-incursion sentiment was uniting liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. “Syria’s not a good thing for cooperation -- it is potentially going to destabilize things rather than stabilize...and we’re still going to be having pretty ugly fights over the deficit and the budget.”

The best chance for avoiding that baggage is to squeeze in a vote on immigration reform before the due dates on a budget and debt ceiling extension. There could be some wiggle room: While Congress does need to pass a budget, or at least a temporary budget extension, by September 30, the country will not actually come up against its borrowing limit until October or November.

But the longer Syria takes to resolve, the more likely it becomes that immigration gets pushed off until the fiscal issues are completed -- blowing the immigrant advocates’ deadline.

It is, however, a deadline that Nevada’s lawmakers never really signed onto in the first place -- not even those who have been boosters of immigration reform since the start.

“I don’t know who puts those types of definitive timelines,” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said. “Congress is in session throughout the rest of this year, and I want it done as quickly as it can get done.”

“With only nine legislative days scheduled in September, I do not anticipate that House leadership will address immigration reform,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said in a statement Friday.

“However, comprehensive immigration reform must stay on the forefront of the political agenda. That's why it is important to continue advocating and driving momentum for the issue in Congress, Las Vegas, and across the country."

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Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement about Syria at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.

In Nevada, immigration advocates seem to have accepted that the end of the year might be a more realistic deadline.

“Congressman Amodei told us that he feels they’ll be able to wrap up [immigration]...before December,” Fulkerson said. “So there’s every expectation that that will happen.”

But the later this goes, the more complicated the politics are -- and the less room there is for any mistakes.

“If they lose that window in late December, it won’t come back until 2015 at the earliest,” Lokken said. “Timing is everything, because this is the only session window. Once you get into January, it’s the 2014 election year, and the grandstanding really gets out of control. So this is a very short window.”

Should immigration advocates miss their window, the potential risks are well-known. Naysayers in the House might be emboldened. Democrats could lose the majority in the Senate, stymying chances immigration reform succeeds. And, as affected communities remind, thousands of unauthorized immigrants who might otherwise have been eligible for legal status, could be at risk of deportation.

In light of all that, immigration advocates are trying to keep the momentum going close to home, and hope that they can still be heard in Washington.

“There’s a great deal of anxiety now that this whole thing has caused. And I think our job is to say yeah, it is murky now, with this big overarching noise of the Syrian war behind us,” Fulkerson said. “But that should not divert us from what we can do every moment of every day to lift up the urgency of immigration reform with a citizenship vote in the House. And we can still do that, in spite of the cacophony of the war surrounding us.”

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