Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

With Syria tensions easing, will immigration reform pass this year?

May Day protesters shout slogans calling for immigration reform as they make their way through Downtown Los Angeles.
May Day protesters shout slogans calling for immigration reform as they make their way through Downtown Los Angeles.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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When tensions were running high last week, some activists feared the Syrian conflict would divert attention away from federal immigration reform, as Washington contemplated military strikes on the Assad regime.

"Syria did stop the momentum," said Javier Rodriguez, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of the Millions of Voices for Immigration Reform Coalition. "We weren't moving."

But now advocates are hopeful that a diplomatic deal struck over the weekend to remove Syria's chemical weapons creates an opening for immigration reform to return to center stage.

Rick Reyes, a former Marine who heads the newly founded California-based Veterans for Citizenship, said a Syria deal is "definitely going to help us with the work that we're doing and allow our legislators to pick up the issue and have the debate."

Comprehensive immigration legislation has been stalled in Congress for months. In June, the Democrat-led Senate approved a bill that sets a path to citizenship for some 11 million unauthorized immigrants while boosting border security. But in the House, Republicans in control criticize the bill as costly and ineffective.

Sarah Trumble, legislative counsel for the center-left think tank Third Way in Washington, said Syria may have sidelined immigration reform, "but that's not actually, necessarily a bad thing."

Trumble said the delay has bought time for some Republicans who may support reform but are worried about re-election.

Filing deadlines for potential challengers to enter primaries are fast approaching, and "for the Republicans, if they know that they're not going to have a challenge on the right, it'll make it a lot easier for them to support reform," Trumble said.

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, said that activists shouldn't get their hopes up that immigration reform will pass this year.

"I'm not sure how likely it was even before Syria came up," Krikorian said.

Krikorian, who favors tighter restrictions on immigration, said Congress also has to deal with the federal budget and debt ceiling. He added the immigration effort is not helped by President Obama, who Krikorian maintains has lost political capital in his handling of the Syrian crisis.

But activists say they are confident that their work through the August recess will pay off.

Reyes said activists have helped organize town-hall style meetings on immigration, and called up their legislators, even as the debate over Syria heated up.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles is among the 1,200 rabbis nationwide who, coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, signed a letter calling for comprehensive immigration reform.

It was issued during the Jewish High Holy Days, and Timoner said rabbis in California and across the country used Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, to issue a clarion call from their pulpits.

"Many rabbis spoke about the issue around undocumented immigrants and how we're treating our immigrant brothers and sisters in this country," Timoner said.

Rodriguez of the Millions of Voices for Immigration Reform Coalition said recent developments in Sacramento create the sense that momentum for reform is building again.

State lawmakers passed several immigration-related bills last week, and Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he will sign at least some, including one that would allow unauthorized immigrants to be issued driver's licenses.

"It's telling people that if we can get a license, we can get reform," Rodriguez said. "It's a logical conclusion."