Capitol Hill Quiet on Immigration

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Remember the massive immigration marches of two years ago? Voters seem to be having some trouble remembering them. A survey last month by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation ranked immigration fifth among the issues that matter most to voters. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde says that could be why Congress has all but ignored immigration reform for more than a year.

Kitty Felde: Elena Garcia is going to Washington, D.C. this week. The 60-year-old homemaker is a Mexican immigrant who just last month became an American citizen. Mrs. Garcia has a few opinions she wants to share with Congress about immigration legislation.

Elena Garcia (translated from Spanish): As a mother, I urge all parents to come together and unite. I'm going to Washington to speak for them because I also want them to be like us who are legal. That may God from above give immigrants an opportunity to fix papers. We are all united. Unity makes us strong.

Felde: At the end of 2005, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill that would have made illegal immigrants felons. Anyone who assisted undocumented immigrants could get five years in prison

Linda Sanchez: And then when word kind of got out about what was in the bill and how terrible it was, it's like all hell broke loose.

Felde: Democratic Congresswoman Linda Sanchez of Cerritos sits on the House immigration subcommittee.

Sanchez: And when the Senate decided to take up immigration, in the early part of the following year, that's when you saw the protests and the demonstrations, because people wanted to make their sentiments known to government.

Felde: Hundreds of thousands of people joined immigration marches in Los Angeles and other cities in the spring of 2006. Government noticed. That summer, the Senate passed a very different immigration bill, one to increase border security and give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. But that bill, and the earlier one from the House, died in conference committee. UC Irvine political scientist Louis De Sipio says last year, the Democrats figured the Senate was the place to start with immigration reform.

Louis De Sipio: The assumption was that they would again be able to do that in 2007, and that would put pressure on the House of Representatives, now in the control of the Democrats, to pass some sort of compromise legislation. That didn't come to pass, however.

Felde: Senate Republicans threatened to filibuster, and the Democratic leadership couldn't get the votes to break it and move immigration reform forward. Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher from Huntington Beach credits anti-illegal immigration activists for that.

Dana Rohrabacher: In the last 12 months, you've had the establishment reeling from the defeat that they suffered at the hands of the American people who rose up en masse and told them that this so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" that they were trying to push down everybody's throat was nothing more than amnesty, and they weren't going to accept it.

Felde: Congress has passed some legislation on immigration and border issues in the last two years. A measure to complete 700 miles of border fencing was passed and signed by the president 18 months ago. But the money provided to Homeland Security to tighten the borders wasn't specifically earmarked for the fence. Al Garza is a National Executive Director of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps. He says the fence still isn't done.

Al Garza: Promise after promise, repeatedly they promise things. We're going to go ahead and secure the borders, but for today, we're going to discuss amnesty.

Felde: Several Republican lawmakers have introduced measures to fund the border fence. And Democratic Congresswoman Linda Sanchez says Congress has discussed increasing the number of visas for high tech and seasonal workers, and extending visa stays for pro athletes. But that's about it.

Sanchez: We've definitely arrived at a place where we pretty much understand that comprehensive immigration reform isn't going to happen this year, in this term.

Felde: This November, Democrats are hoping to build their number in the Senate to a "filibuster-proof" 60 seats. That could clear the way for immigration legislation. If it passes, it could get a quick signature from whoever occupies the White House in January. That's because Clinton, Obama, and McCain all support some kind of comprehensive immigration reform.