After more than a decade, the finish line for an immigration reform bill is enticingly close. A comprehensive bill got through the Senate last summer, and a Democrat-backed bill is kicking around the House of Representatives.
But now the holidays are closing in, and next year is sure to bring renewed battles over the budget and the debt ceiling. So some immigration advocates are out in force now, trying to get a bill on the president’s desk within the next few weeks. They’re putting heavy pressure on a few key Republican members of the House, such as Rep. Mike Coffman in central Colorado, to pass a bill.
In the city of Aurora, right next to Denver, Eugenio Rodarte walks the streets of this heavily Latino community with his clipboard, stopping people and asking if they support immigration reform. When he finds a woman who says yes, he quickly pulls out his cell phone and calls Coffman’s nearby office.
Rodarte, who works with the group Mi Familia Vota, hands the Spanish-speaking woman his phone and a short script. He translates for the Congressman’s staffer on the other end of the line as the woman says, in Spanish, that she supports HR 15, the Democrat-backed immigration reform bill that largely mirrors the Senate’s proposal that passed this summer.
Rodarte has been placing a lot of these calls recently. His group is also bringing people directly to Coffman’s regional office. Rodarte says Coffman has already come a long way. Rodarte is convinced their strategy is working.
“I think because [Coffman] got so many messages from the community, he got [his answering] machine so full every day, that finally he came out in the public, in the newspaper, the Denver Post, and he announced that he’s going to support immigration reform,” Rodarte says.
Coffman wrote an op-ed in July. He reiterated standard conservative points, like calling for more secure borders, and he also said children who were brought to the US illegally should get a pathway to citizenship, and that adults here in good standing should be eligible for a provisional visa to remain in the US.
That’s a big step for a Republican member of the House. But immigration reform advocates like Derick Ruiz, also with Mi Familia Vota in Colorado, say Coffman needs to put his words into action, and support an actual bill if he wants to win Latino votes next year.
“The community is not dumb, they’re very smart,” Ruiz says. “They will know that Coffman did not step up and did not champion immigration reform for the community, and 20 percent of his constituents are immigrants.”
Coffman may need those votes next November. His district was redrawn last year and now has a lot more Latinos. That puts Coffman in a bind: pursue Latino voters, or stand with the conservative base.
Coffman isn’t tipping his hand. He turned down repeated interview requests for this story. His website offers no details on his stance on immigration reform.
Christine Marquez-Hudson, executive director of the Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver, has met with Coffman in Washington and describes him as a “pragmatic person.”
“I think that he is also cognizant of the changing demographics of the community that he represents,” she says.
But in the next breath, Marquez-Hudson adds she’s cynical that Coffman and other House Republicans will get anything done on immigration reform, anytime soon. She’s says they’re too worried about losing their seats to more conservative Republican primary challengers next year.
“It is very, very exhausting,” says Marquez-Hudson. “God bless the people that are still out there working hard on this, but I think everyone would agree that some of the wind has been knocked out of the sails.”
Coffman may have another reason not to sign onto an immigration reform bill: The damage to the Republican brand with Latinos may already be done.
Colombian immigrant and restaurant owner Joaquín Contreras says it’s already too late.
“It wouldn’t make a difference, because the Republicans, they always talk about money, cutting taxes for rich people,” Contreras says.
Contreras says that kind of rhetoric doesn’t attract lower income, even middle class people, like most Latinos in places like Aurora.
But immigration reform activists insist if Republicans get the immigration issue off the table, Latinos will again consider voting for the party.
If an immigration reform bill doesn’t get passed this year, an increasingly likely scenario, advocates say the fight isn’t over. They insist they are not going away.