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Immigration Backers Fear Back Burner

Backers of comprehensive immigration reform are scrambling to keep their priority issue in the forefront of the Congressional agenda as Democratic leaders remain focused on other competing items.

In addition to watching their issue get buried amid debates on health care reform and climate change legislation, immigration reform advocates are starting to worry that President Barack Obama may be sending a signal that he wants to punt on their issue for now. The White House has twice scheduled — and canceled — a meeting with immigration reform stakeholders.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Tuesday said the meeting has now been rescheduled for June 25. He brushed off the idea that the delays are a sign that Obama is backing down in his support for initiating immigration reform discussions.

“Unfortunately, the schedule here is, as always, a work in progress. And for those reasons, the meeting has been, I think, rescheduled,— Gibbs said. The fact that the meeting keeps getting delayed is not a reflection of Obama’s commitment to immigration reform, he said.

It remains unclear who will be invited to the White House meeting, which Obama has said he wants to keep small. Invitations have yet to go out to Members of Congress, according to a White House aide.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are divided on what to make of the delays. Some are growing restless as time runs out to address the issue this year — and many believe the divisive topic is not likely to advance in 2010 because it is an election year.

“I’m a little more than disappointed. I think it was a mistake— that Obama postponed the latest meeting, said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chairman of the CHC Immigration Task Force. “Every time there is a delay, there comes less and less wiggle room.—

Gutierrez, who earlier this year held a series of meetings across the country to build momentum for reform, said he hopes Obama keeps in mind that CHC members are “significant and meaningful stakeholders in this issue,— particularly because they have shown him “a long history of support.—

“The frustration on this is palatable because … it’s such a delicate issue politically that any time that you put it off, it gets interpreted as being a symbol,— said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Even if the White House keeps postponing its meeting, Grijalva said the strategy among immigration advocates, on and off the Hill, is to ramp up pressure on Democratic leaders not to let the issue slip.

“The rest of the stuff in place is going to just keep going,— Grijalva said. “That’s why everything else we’re doing on the outside is to match up with what we’re trying to do internally to push these people.—

Several groups have ramped up their efforts in recent weeks to bring immigration issues to the forefront.

The National Council of La Raza on Tuesday sent out an e-mail with a petition calling on supporters to press Congress to pass health care reform that includes meaningful reforms for Latinos. “We only have a short time to act,— the e-mail stated.

And on Wednesday, a group of religious leaders will hold a prayer vigil to highlight the urgency for immigration reform. “Hundreds of people of faith will gather to pray for President Obama and Congress to have the courage to move legislation forward this year,— according to an e-mail.

One way that lawmakers are hoping to advance immigration issues is through the health care debate — a politically volatile combination that Democratic leaders are hoping to avoid. Several CHC members said there are already immigration-related amendments in the works that they hope to attach to any upcoming health care bill.

“I think what leadership wants is a don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on the issues of immigration and health care,— one CHC member said.

This lawmaker speculated that Republicans would also offer amendments that are “even crueler and worse than the laws we have in place. … So whether we want to or not, it will come up.—

Among Congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been the most forthcoming about a desire to advance immigration legislation this year. He has dismissed the idea of taking on immigration issues in the context of health care reform, however, because he wants to pass a comprehensive package down the road.

“We’re going to do it all in one piece of legislation, not give people an excuse that they voted for one thing and think that they’re through with it,— Reid said Monday.

One Democratic lawmaker said to anticipate at least “a couple— of amendments in the health care debate relating to undocumented children. “As an elementary school principal, there’s no way I’m not having my youngsters not have immunizations,— the Member said.

So far, when the issue of health care for undocumented children has been raised with drafters of the health care bill, “they said neither aye nor nay,— the lawmaker added.

In the meantime, other immigration stakeholders say they are taking Obama at his word that he will advance discussions on comprehensive immigration reform this year.

“I think he’s got a lot of things on his plate,— said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Despite the delays with the White House meeting, CAPAC members are not discouraged, he said.

“I’m not frustrated because I know how difficult an issue it is,— added Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), a CHC member. “If there are issues that they haven’t resolved yet, I’d rather we wait.—

While activists may be pressing for action on immigration reform as soon as possible, Serrano said his role as a Member of Congress gives him additional perspective that they do not have.

“I know that sometimes it’s better to put something off until you get it right,— Serrano said. “I’m more interested in getting it right than getting it in two months.—

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