Charles Dharapak / AP
Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 | 2 a.m.
President Barack Obama promised immigration reform leaders that their cause would top his second-term agenda, making January their month.
But immigration advocates are beginning to worry that their fight could slip behind a cause that wasn’t even an issue during the election: gun control.
The White House was supposed to begin its push in earnest this month for immigration reform. Instead, after a gunman killed 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead a group that will release a reform proposal in mid-January — just when immigration activists had hoped all eyes would be on their issue.
Immigration advocates believed their best shot at comprehensive reform was to push it early in Obama’s second term — when the election results were still fresh in Republicans’ minds and when the president could use the bully pulpit of his inauguration and the State of the Union Address to rally the public.
If those speeches become about gun control, it’ll make it that much harder for advocates to pick up the momentum needed to get a big, controversial bill through Congress.
“To say it’s not a concern would not be truthful,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a veteran lawmaker who has been a dogged proponent for immigration reform.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., also said he has heard worry from at least one outside group concerned about gun control overtaking immigration reform.
Both the Senate and House have small groups meeting on immigration issues, but no official proposals have been released publicly or even floated behind the scenes. The White House did move last week to ease visa requirements, which is expected allow more illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. while seeking permanent residency.
Meanwhile, gun control reform is on the move. The White House announced Tuesday that Biden will meet with the NRA on Thursday. He’s held meetings with law enforcement and gun control advocates.
The administration is also reaching out to major philanthropic organizations not typically associated with gun reform, asking for their support.
Former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot by a gunman in 2011, launched an anti-gun violence website this week with her husband and published an op-ed in USA Today, urging reform.
And long-time advocates are pushing hard on Capitol Hill. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., along with other gun control advocates, introduced legislation the first day of the 113th Congress that would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has pledged to reintroduce assault rifle ban legislation.
And Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who is leading a task force in the House, has met with gun violence prevention groups, sportsmen's groups, gun owners, people from the entertainment industry, mental health experts, law enforcement officials and victims groups, among others.
Separately, Congress has two other fights queued up for early in the year. Lawmakers punted in December on how to handle automatic spending cuts as part of a fiscal cliff deal. And lawmakers face an impending vote to raise the debt ceiling.
Obama had promised immigration would be a top priority after the fiscal cliff debate.
“I definitely think (the fiscal debate) affects the effort to pass immigration reform,” LULAC President Brent Wilkes said, noting that Obama has said he wants to get beyond the fiscal issues before moving onto other priorities. “Inevitably that kind of distraction is not helpful on immigration reform.”
Additionally, Wilkes said many Hispanic groups will be focused on trying to limit domestic cuts because they would affect their constituencies.
Immigration activists have been urging Congress to take up a proposal that could pass before the August recess. If the timeline slips, Washington insiders worry Obama’s influence will dramatically decrease and the political will of lawmakers will fade if it gets too close to the the mid-term election and politically untenable for many members to vote in favor of a measure that would include a path to citizenship.
While publicly many of the groups are continuing to say they believe immigration reform is viable, others who have been through these fights are more pessimistic.
“Unfortunately it’s become about who has the upper hand politically. Republicans are feeling like they lost. I think it makes it harder to sit down and work on these big issues,” one veteran immigration lobbyist said.
Their worry may not be unfounded. Environmental activists found their hopes for a major regulatory overhaul dashed in Obama’s first term after he first moved on health care and financial services bills.
Reform proponents aren't giving up.
“Unlike guns, unlike sequestration, unlike so many issues, on this one there is a great degree of understanding of its importance,” Gutierrez said. “Now, does that mean that all the fine print (is agreed upon) — no, but I think there is good will there.”
National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguía said Hispanic groups are “going into this with our eyes wide open.”
And there are reasons for immigration reform supporters to be optimistic. The White House has mentioned immigration, albeit briefly, in recent conference calls about the fiscal cliff.
Obama also made his most aggressive public statement in a recent interview.
“I’ve said that fixing our broken immigration system is a top priority,” Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I will introduce legislation in the first year to get that done. I think we have talked about it long enough.”
Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) recent move to bring the fiscal cliff deal to the floor without a majority of Republican votes to pass the legislation has also cheered immigration proponents.
“We are very clear that this is not going to be easy, but I do believe there is a chance, and it’s a good chance that we could move something in the next six to eight months,” Murguía said. “I do believe members are actually more interested in talking about immigration reform than on issues where they are going to feel more stuck, on the fiscal cliff and some of these gun issues.”