The future of immigration reform could well to be decided in the next three weeks. And this will occur not in the halls of Congress but in Congressional Town Hall meetings across the nation. Anti-immigrant activists are hoping for a replay of the Tea Party’s successful August 2009 attacks on health care reform; by triggering loud public confrontations with Congressmembers in normally placid Town Hall meetings, conservative activists led the media to wrongly conclude that reform lacked public support. But in 2013, progressives are prepared. Immigrant rights activists believe they can use the Town Halls to expose the strength of their support and propel immigration reform to passage. Considering that both sides are prepared and the key element of surprise is lacking, whose activist strategies will prevail?
As even President Obama acknowledges, the passage of immigration reform comes down to whether Speaker John Boehner will allow a House vote. A majority of House members would support the Senate bill if given the chance, but anti-immigrant activists along with the right-wing talk radio echo chamber do not want to give them this opportunity.
Immigrant rights activists have always known this battle would have to be won in small towns and suburbs rather than in Washington DC, and this is exactly what has occurred.
The Anti-Immigrant Strategy
Anti-immigrant reformers hope to use grassroots mobilizing and protests to pressure GOP House members to avoid a vote. But unlike health care opponents, they face a major problem: a lack of people passionate about the anti-immigrant cause. The lack of grassroots interest in immigration reform—in contrast with “Obamacare,” opposition to which still galvanizes the base—makes any oppositional Town Hall strategy difficult.
It’s even more challenging when, as The Atlantic reported on August 1, opponents of reform are identified with white supremacist and Anti-Semitic views. When FOX News, Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove are all promoting immigration reform, we are talking about a very different political dynamic than that that surrounding health care reform.
According to Think Progress, a “Stop Amnesty” rally in Richmond, Virginia last night that featured the anti-immigrant zealot Congressmember Steve King (R-Iowa) brought out only fifty to sixty people. Such undermines claims that the conservative base is “on fire” over “amnesty” and sees opposition to immigration reform as a litmus test issue.
Anti-immigrant activists have also done something very different from the Tea Party’s 2009 Town Hall strategy: they have advertised it. The element of surprise that led media to widely publicize the August 2009 protests— the brilliance of this strategy was that Town Hall’s had never previously been stormed so this occurrence was “news”—does not exist.
Ultimately, anti-immigrant activists see primary challenges to GOP backers of reform as their strongest strategy. But with the Senate already passing reform and most GOP House members in extremely conservative districts already against reform, the threat of primary challenges seems hollow.
Immigrant Rights Activists Are Prepared
Immigrant rights activists were focused on the August Town Hall’s even before the Senate bill’s passage. They dominated a Houston Town Hall held by Democrat Shirley Jackson Lee, leading conservative bloggers to decry this “stinging blow”—“ the realization that the anti-amnesty cavalry didn’t arrive; while hundreds of pro-reform voices filled Houston’s City Hall, only three adults showed up to make the case against the deeply flawed, nation-altering comprehensive immigration reform proposal.
The conservative Breitbart.com raised further alarms on August 9 that “The DREAM Action Coalition (DRM Action) is urging activists to attend town halls throughout August in at least 30 states, even in heavily Republican districts, to ensure their concerns get aired.” It noted that “the town hall schedule on DRM Action’s website has been taken down since the publication of this article, but a cached version of the town hall schedule can be found here.
Anti-immigrant fears of large Town Hall turnouts to support reform do not sound like a movement primed for victory. Rather, it sounds like a besieged political minority desperate for reinforcements in a losing struggle.
GOP Wants to Move Forward
With immigrant rights activists likely to win the battle over Town Hall’s, Republicans eager to avoid a House vote will return to DC in September with no wind at their back. Instead, pro-reform Republican strategists like Karl Rove will point to this lack of grassroots opposition as further evidence that the GOP needs to get beyond this issue.
John Boehner is in a much tougher fix than GOP Senators who did not want an up and down vote on gun regulations. In that case, the April 2013 vote to end the filibuster gave the appearance of a full Senate vote, with the media describing the Senate as “defeating” the bill despite it getting majority support.
The House cannot filibuster immigration reform, which puts all of the blame on not holding a vote on Boehner. And it will sound profoundly undemocratic to the American people for a vote not to be held, potentially creating a high risk re-election scenario for many Republicans who would otherwise face easy re-election.
So it appears that in 2013 activists have again used Town Halls’ to change the political debate — but this time in a progressive direction.
(Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron, where this post first appeared. His post is republished with permission.)