Son Ah Yun, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in South Korea and now lives in Smyrna, was among hundreds of activists who fasted this month in support of immigration overhaul legislation.
Other activists locked themselves to the gates outside a downtown Atlanta building used by federal immigration authorities and were arrested last month.
The increasingly confrontational tactics have come as comprehensive immigration legislation remains stalled in Congress, including a new path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
“Our community is not stopping,” said Yun, a deputy immigration campaign manager for the Campaign for Community Change, a Washington-based group that helps poor people organize and improve their communities. “We started to escalate in December, and that will continue as we go into the year 2014.”
Tea party groups and others that oppose creating a special route to citizenship for illegal immigrants have also been vocal. They have marched in Washington, written their congressmen and demonstrated outside their offices in Atlanta, but they have not been as bold or attention-grabbing in their tactics.
Others who fasted in support of a pathway to citizenship for weeks on Washington’s National Mall garnered a visit from President Barack Obama and gathered for a rally on the steps of the Capitol with Democratic U.S. House members.
“Listen, Mr. Speaker,” bellowed Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, who was himself arrested during a demonstration in front of the Capitol in October pressing for an overhaul of the immigration system. “Can you hear? Millions of lives are hanging in the balance as this Congress leaves for a break. How can we turn our backs on the families who must hide in the shadows of this country?”
U.S. House Republicans have so far declined to move any immigration bills to match legislation that passed the Senate, and they appear unmoved by the demonstrations.
“The less they focus on theatrics, the more we focus on the things that try to bring us together, I think we’ll end up with a better solution,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican.
The Democratic-led Senate passed sweeping legislation on a bipartisan vote in June. Stretching more than 1,000 pages, Senate Bill 744 would create a 13-year route to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
It is aimed at bolstering border security and clearing out backlogs in the legal immigration system. And it would make it easier for employers to hire more temporary foreign workers.
The debate has attracted — and divided — diverse groups of people from across Georgia. Among them: Evangelicals, Catholics, tea party members and business owners.
Supporters say the Senate bill presents a humane way to revamp the nation’s immigration system and deal with the estimated 11.7 million immigrants living here illegally. Critics say the citizenship provision in the bill amounts to a reward for lawbreakers. They also compared the measure to the new health care law, saying both are too complex and overreaching, while questioning the Obama administration’s ability to implement them effectively.
House Republican leaders have instead been considering smaller bills focused on border security, interior immigration enforcement and getting more green cards to highly skilled immigrants.
They have talked about legislation to give legal status to immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as young children, but nothing along those lines has been introduced yet.
Top House Republicans have signaled the chamber will move some kind of immigration legislation in 2014, as the issue was overrun in recent months by battles over the budget and the law known as Obamacare.
Many Republicans fear that even if they pass piecemeal bills, it would produce a conference committee with the Senate immigration bill and result in a comprehensive bill being forced down their throats.
“It is impossible to deal with a complicated issue like this when you genuinely don’t trust the other person that you’re negotiating with,” Woodall said.
Ana Navarro, a Miami-based Republican strategist and CNN contributor, said she thinks immigration legislation can still get done in 2014.
House Republican leaders can overcome members’ trepidation “by making it clear that if and when they go to conference, (if) the output is not a combination and balance between the House and Senate plans, the House won’t agree to final passage,” Navarro wrote in an email. “Boehner has said over and over the House will not just rubber-stamp (the) Senate plan. I think he’s serious.”
Ross Baker, a Rutgers University professor and expert on Congress, said a possible compromise could be to give illegal immigrants legal status but not citizenship, an idea many Democrats have rejected as unworkable because it would create a permanent group of second-class citizens.
The tug of war is heightened, Baker said, by the fact that both Democrats and Republicans view immigrants living here illegally as a vast pool of potential Democratic voters.
As the midterm elections approach, political considerations will only heighten.
“They love the issue,” Baker said of Democrats, who are accusing Republicans of being anti-Latino and anti-immigrant. “They’d rather have the issue than the legislation itself. They’re dining out on that.”
Lewis said his interest in pushing for an immigration overhaul is on moral grounds. He compared the increasingly bold demonstrations to ones during the civil rights movement intended to draw news media coverage.
Lewis said the civil rights movement did not just rely on people like him who participated in the Freedom Rides or marched in Selma, Ala., but “people who saw it happening and were moved by it all.”
Groups on both sides of the debate are deploying the traditional methods of political persuasion ahead of next year’s congressional elections.
The Gwinnett Tea Party, which opposes the Senate legislation, will be questioning Georgia’s congressional candidates about where they stand on the issues, said David Hancock, the organization’s co-chairman.
“Optimistically, I would like to see the traditional lines that you hear all the time — the enforcement of existing immigration laws (and) the protection and securing of our border,” he said.
This month, Americans for Legal Immigration — a political action committee that advocates for the enforcement of federal immigration laws — called for the ouster of dozens of House Republicans who are supporting “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. None are from Georgia. But the PAC’s leader said his group will be keeping an eye on congressmen from Georgia and other states next year.
“Now, it’s our turn,” said William Gheen, the PAC’s president. “They didn’t get the dirty deed complete. So now it is payback time in the GOP primaries.”
The National Council of La Raza and other Latino groups are preparing to score any immigration-related votes in Congress next year and distribute that information to Hispanics. America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group, also plans to keep up the pressure on Congress.
“We would much rather have a Rose Garden signing ceremony where Republicans take credit for passing or helping to pass reform,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice. “But if they don’t, we will spend the fall trying to elect a Congress that will take action on immigration reform.”