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Groups increase push for immigration reform, but prospects uncertain

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PHOENIX – Jose Patino, whose parents brought him from Mexico to the U.S. illegally 18 years ago, wanted his voice heard when he and scores of others demonstrated recently outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices here.

The goal of the protest organized by the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition: halting buses carrying deportees away from the facility. Because of a federal government holiday on this day, there were none, but Patino said the message still needs to be heard.

“What we’re trying to say is, “Look at us, we’re just like you,’” he said. “We have families, we work, we have children, we have dreams … why are you trying to separate us?”

In Tucson, protesters recently chained themselves to buses carrying those due in court to face criminal charges of illegally crossing the border.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, was arrested Oct. 8 with 20 other Congress members for blocking a street in front of the Capitol during a rally for immigration reform. Later, demonstrators who rode a bus from Arizona to Washington stood vigil outside House Speaker John Boehner’s office for most a day trying to make their case.

The goal of these and other demonstrations: getting Congress to put its focus back on passing a comprehensive immigration bill that would offer a pathway to citizenship the more than 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, including the so-called DREAMers brought here as children.

The measure, put forward by a bipartisan group of senators, won Senate approval but was stalled in the House before the budget impasse and partial government shutdown.

“The time is now,” said Petra Falcón, executive director of Promise Arizona. “We’ve never been so close to passing legislation in immigration form.”

“We don’t want to see the hurt in our families,” said Francisco Luna, an affiliate lead of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition. “We don’t want to hear calls at night of families being torn apart.”

Joseph Garcia, director of the Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said the groups are concerned about Congress getting sidetracked by other issues.

“The one thing that the demonstrations and the protesters are ringing about is that, ‘Let’s not forget this very important issue of immigration,’” Garcia said.

Rodolfo Espino, associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies, said that time is running out and that the prospects for a bill to be passed in the House are diminishing.

“I don’t think comprehensive immigration reform is going to happen,” he said. “If anything happens, there will be some tweaking on the margins – some minor changes.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan research group, said that even if a modest piece of legislation comes out of the House it would most likely not reach the president’s desk before the end of the year.

“Yes, there will be activity and the House will probably pass one or more pieces of legislation,” he said. “But the odds are they will not go to conference with the Senate.”

Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a group that advocates for reducing immigration, said that pro-immigration groups would probably benefit more by focusing on smaller goals, like bills specifically for DREAMers or stopping deportations of those from families that include individuals who are in the country legally and illegally.

“Basically they want to stop all deportations except for violent criminals, and that just doesn’t work,” Beck said. “I think they could be taken much more seriously if they were only dealing with deportations that involved a mixed-marriage.”

Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said pro-immigration groups face a greater challenge than reluctant House members.

“The biggest obstacle is that this really is not a priority for most Americans,” Mehlman said. “I think members of Congress understand that when they come home to their districts they don’t have most of their constituents hammering for legalization for illegal aliens – that is not the foremost issue on the minds of people in the country.”

Lisa Magaña, associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies, is also skeptical about the impact of recent protests by groups advocating for immigration reform.

“I think it’s the policymakers and agenda-setting that’s going to have an impact, not the demonstrations,” Magaña said.

But Garcia, with ASU’s Morrison Institute, said that sooner or later Congress is going to have to act on the issue.

“It’s not going to go away until it’s settled,” he said.