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An Open Letter To Josh Marshall and Other Immigration Reform Pessimists Who Might Be Interested

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Following is an open letter to Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo from Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

Josh, I love you, man.  I’m a big fan.  But I have to take issue with your post from yesterday entitled, “Immigration Reformers, Wake the F’ Up!”

Your premise is clear enough: Republicans in the House don’t want to pass immigration reform, are bent on killing it off and want to avoid the blame for doing so.  You suggest we are earnest reformers naïve to the dysfunction, demagoguery and divisions that define the House of Representatives.  And you question whether we have the smarts to pronounce reform dead now and the cojones to call out the House Republicans for killing it.

Sorry, we’re not going there.  We’re in it to win it.  And we’re optimistic about our chances.  Let me offer up a few reasons why.

First, and no offense, we are used to being discounted by doubters.  Over the years we’ve been told that Latino and immigrant voters would never make a difference in electoral outcomes; that immigration is a third rail issue that works against Democrats; that its a wedge issue that works for Republicans; that the anti-immigrant movement and the Tea Party are much stronger than pro-reform forces; that immigration reform with a path to citizenship is too far out of the mainstream to gain public support; that President Obama would never take bold executive action to protect DREAMers; and so on.  So much for conventional wisdom.

Now we’re told that immigration reform is dead.  This, just weeks after the U.S. Senate passed a strong bill with a bipartisan vote of 68-32.  This, when it’s evident that today – right now – a bipartisan majority exists in the House of Representatives that would approve immigration reform with a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.  Sorry, we’re not buying it.

Second, our movement is strong and getting stronger every day.  It’s built on a simple premise: build power to win policy change.  Our fundamentals, noted below, are what give us confidence.

  • We mobilize voters for whom immigration reform is a defining issue.  From the ashes of defeat back in 2007, we intentionally invested in voter mobilization of low-propensity Latino, Asian and immigrant voters in each of the last few cycles.  The success of the groups doing this work – SEIU, UNITE HERE, Mi Familia Vota, Center for Community Change/FIRM, NCLR, Asian and Pacific Islander Vote, Voto Latino, NALEO and many more – are responsible for creating the political imperative for the debate we are having today.  What was true right after the 2012 election – that the GOP has a huge problem with Latinos and others who make up the “coalition of the ascendant” – is just as true today.  Should the GOP block reform, their badly tarnished brand will be permanently damaged for a generation with the fastest growing groups of voters in America.  If it comes to that, we will make sure of it.
  • We are more united than ever.  Unlike in the past, the progressive community is fully on board with immigration reform this time around.  Importantly, this includes a united labor movement.  This unity is one of the main reasons we are kicking ass all over the country during the August recess.  Progressives are organizing some 500 events while our opposition is falling apart.  Our online strength, built from scratch over the last few years, has been turbocharged by the power of MoveOn, CREDO and others.  A strategy focusing on 50 gettable Republicans is bearing fruit as a growing number are moving – publicly – in our direction.
  • Our movement enjoys strong and unprecedented support from unusual allies.  This is not a typical progressive vs. conservative fight.  Our allies include evangelical leaders, the Catholic Church, the high tech industry, the Chamber of Commerce, agricultural producers, deep-pocketed group of GOP donors and a number of conservative thought leaders (yes, even Grover Norquist is a vocal supporter of reform).  As a result, targeted members in their districts are hearing from pastors, entrepreneurs, immigrants, DREAMers, law enforcemen officials, business owners and bishops – all saying that now is the time for immigration reform.  And when they turn on the TV and radio, the pro-reform forces are dominating by a more than 3-1 margin.
  • We are winning the public policy argument.  Our approach to modernizing our immigration system is to combine three key components: 1) smart enforcement; 2) legal immigration reforms; and 3) legalization with an achievable path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America.  This combination now polls in the 80s, with Republican support in the 70s.  Most Americans now get it: broad reform that integrates these elements is the best way to transform a dysfunctional system into a legal, orderly and humane one.
  • We are winning the economic argument.  Economists and experts from across the spectrum – from Cato to the Center for American Progress – argue that reform will lead to more jobs, higher wages, more economic growth and reduced deficits.  Meanwhile, the hard right opposition is failing with its witches brew of economic and cultural populism that seems more attuned to angry voters in Europe than to disappointed voters in America.
  • We are winning the moral argument.  With DREAMers, their Moms and even former journalist Jose Antonio Vargas “coming out” as undocumented and unafraid, the cultural context for the policy debate has shifted dramatically.  Seeing Americans-in-waiting proclaim their love of America and their desire to become citizens moves people.  Hearing Rep. Steve King (R-IA) say young immigrants are drug-running criminals with “calves the size of cantaloupes” disgusts people.
  • The anti-immigrant opposition is getting stomped:  Out in the real world of dog-eat-dog campaigning, our movement is sizzling, while our opponents are fizzling.  As Molly Ball wrote in The Atlantic, “Activists on both sides of the immigration debate had put heavy emphasis on the importance of flexing grassroots muscle during this month of congressional recess.  The idea is to show Republicans in the House of Representatives, which hasn’t settled on a path forward on the issue, where the most passionate support lies …Hundreds of immigrant advocates have appeared at rallies and town halls across the country.  But the other side, the opponents, have been mostly absent.”  Just last week, Steve King headlined an event to pressure Eric Cantor that drew a few dozen people.  The same week, pro-reform forces turned out thousands to pressure Kevin McCarthy.  See ABC News, the Washington Post, Politico, and The Week for further evidence.  Or just listen to Bob Dane, the communications director of the anti-immigrant organization FAIR, who called the pro-reform display in August a “staggering, well-financed hard push by the left and the right.”

So what, you might say.  Even if the pro-reform forces have more strength and stronger fundamentals, how are you going to convince the House of Representatives to overcome their antipathy towards minorities and vote for a path to citizenship?  After all, these are the same Republicans who a year ago wanted to deport the 11 million, and who fear that in 15 years from now those legalized will bolster the ranks of Democrats.

Our response?  It’s all to play for.  Let’s go for broke leave it all on the field.  The commentariat may be growing bored or angry with what they see as a replay of every other major issue, but this year’s immigration debate is far from over.  It may feel like the fourth quarter to some, but House Republicans are still in the first half.  Individually and collectively they are trying to figure out where they land on policy, what the implications are for those decisions politically and what might be the consequences of their choices.

The fact of the matter is that the pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is increasing.  He’s already told his caucus inaction is not an option.  He either gets it done or gets blamed for screwing the GOP for a generation.  So what is leadership going to do?  I predict we’ll see an immigration week this fall in which a number of bills – including bills that provide for legalization and citizenship options – will be taken up in sequence.  Those that passed will be reconciled with the Senate bill and a decent bill will be signed into law.

But what about the so-called Hastert rule?  That’s an excuse, not a rule, and he’s disregarded it three times already this year.  No, even Boehner won’t sacrifice his party’s future for the sake of a rule that’s not a rule.  In fact, the best thing opponents of reform have going for them is the pessimism so evident in the punditry.  It lets Boehner and House Republican leadership off the hook at a time when our movement is ready to hold them accountable like never before.

So, Josh, hang in there, brother.  You can rest assured that our movement is way woken up.  We are strong, getting stronger and fighting to win.  Our goal is legislation that solves the problem for millions of immigrants, and for all of America.  And we aren’t just running out the clock.  We are confident that our fundamentals will overcome their nativism.

After all, this is about more than immigration reform.  It’s about the future of the Republican Party, and therefore the future of American politics.  And the GOP should be clear: this is the last time the immigration reform movement and Democrats in the Senate and House are prepared to give the GOP a get-out-of-jail card.  If the GOP comes through on reform this year, they get to share credit and earn a chance to rehabilitate their image with voters hungry for solutions and with voters from immigrant and ethnic communities.

And if they get to no, we will bury them.