More than a hundred activists from around the country gathered outside the U.S. Capitol Thursday morning, chanting slogans and staging a sit-in to push for immigration reform.
Women wearing red T-shirts sat down in the middle of busy Independence Avenue, just as lawmakers were trying to make their way from their House offices to the House chamber for the final votes of the week. Capitol Police peacefully arrested more than a hundred women, including a number of undocumented immigrants.
Emily Gelbaum, originally from Newport Beach, is with Fair Immigration Reform Movement. She says with Congress returning to work this week after the August recess, "we need to make sure immigration reform is at the top of their list."
Congressman Paul Cook of Big Bear says for members of Congress — and for most of their constituents — recently there's been just one topic. "The last two weeks," he says, "everything has been Syria, Syria, Syria. That's what we've all been focused on." The freshman Republican says immigration has, frankly, fallen off the radar screen.
But this week, the GOP Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, told Washington public radio station WAMU that an immigration vote could be scheduled sooner than expected. "My best estimate is that we will be ready to take up immigration bills very soon," he said. "It may be October."
House committees have approved five bills from Republicans, dealing with border security, workplace enforcement, agricultural guest workers and a high-tech worker bill sponsored by Darrell Issa of Vista. Goodlatte says several lawmakers are working on a measure that would address the legal status of at least some of the estimated 11 million undocumented in this country.
A bi-partisan group of seven House lawmakers — including L.A. Democrat Xavier Becerra — has been working on its own version of a comprehensive measure as was passed by the Senate. But after months of negotiation, they still haven't introduced the bill. Becerra says the lawmakers "have to agree that there's an initiative that we want to put forward to our colleagues."
Does that mean the group's Republican members still haven't signed off? Becerra says he won't characterize where any of his colleagues are — Republicans or Democrats. "I will simply say that we have not yet introduced a bill."
On Monday night, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hosted an informal dinner for a number of her Democratic House colleagues. The topic: immigration.
El Monte Democrat Judy Chu, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, attended the gathering. She says Democrats will push the immigration reform discussion into other debates, for example when Congress tackles the debt ceiling in the coming weeks.
"When the fiscal discussions come up about addressing the deficit," she says, "it will become clear that immigration reform will actually reduce the deficit — in fact, possibly by a trillion dollars over the next 20 years."
Republican members from California's Central Valley have been out front on the immigration issue, hosting town halls and a bi-partisan forum, and voicing support for a path to citizenship — if not for all, then for some. Devin Nunes of Tulare says most people in the U.S. will accept a path to citizenship combined with background checks and secure borders. "At this point, we need something to pass the House," he says. "Anything is great."
Even if the House doesn't pass a comprehensive immigration bill, any package of bills that includes the citizenship issue would trigger a conference committee where House and Senate members hash out a compromise. That, says Corona Republican Congressman Ken Calvert, is key: "I think it's important that the right conferees are picked."
Calvert supports both the border protection and worker verification bills. And while he supports legal status for all 11 million undocumented here in the country, citizenship may be a bridge too far. The House GOP has said it won't put forward any bill that doesn't have support from a majority of its members.
All summer, immigration reform advocates have been running ads or staging protests in the districts of key members. Congress returned to work with the reminder that, while immigration isn't at the top of their "things to do" list, it's an important issue in many of their districts.
For his part, Big Bear Congressman Cook says he's ready to turn his attention to immigration — as soon as he sees the actual bills. "I want to see what the package is," he says.
The Bakersfield district office of House Whip Kevin McCarthy is also the target of Thursday protesters. United Farm Workers Vice President Erika Oropeza is part of another women's group asking for a vote on immigration reform legislation that would allow new immigrants to adjust their legal status and eventually apply for citizenship.
And in Sacramento, more than a dozen GOP state lawmakers are expected to gather at a Thursday morning news conference to push for Congress to act on immigration reform.
On Capitol Hill, immigration will still take a back seat to the big debate for September: the debt ceiling. The government technically runs out of money at the end of the month unless Congress passes another spending resolution.
This story has been updated.