RICHMOND, Va. -- It was the kickoff of a "Stop Amnesty Tour" organized by the Tea Party Patriots and other groups. But the crowd was so sparse that immigrant advocates were soon gleefully circulating photos of the featured speaker, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, standing alone on an empty stage.
The rally at a public park in Richmond, Va., earlier this month, along with the subsequent cancellation or postponement of several similar events, points to an emerging reality during Congress' five-week summer recess: Opposition to overhauling immigration laws appears notably muted, almost tame. Meanwhile, advocates who support comprehensive overhaul legislation are claiming they've changed at least a handful of minds among House Republicans.
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During Congress' last attempt to remake the immigration system, in 2007, public backlash helped kill the bill as angry calls overwhelmed the Senate switchboard. This summer, other issues, notably President Barack Obama's health care law, seem to be topping the list of voters' concerns.
Constituents opposed to citizenship for immigrants in this country illegally are loudly voicing their views at Republican House members' town hall meetings this month. But advocates of immigration legislation that would offer a path to citizenship are having some success getting their supporters to show up, too, even in heavily Republican districts.
"In a sort of immediate sense, Obamacare is what the party has decided they want to make a big deal of in these town halls, so that's frankly siphoning off a lot of outrage because the people ticked off about Obamacare are the same people ticked off about amnesty," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes higher immigration levels.
Plus, the pro-immigration reform side is better organized and funded this time around and many establishment Republicans are on board. "All of that put together means you're not going to see the same level of frantic activity," Krikorian said.
What's less clear is how much it will matter once lawmakers return to Washington in September.
Immigration overhaul legislation, a top second-term priority for Obama, is in limbo after the Democratic-led Senate in June passed a far-reaching bill that includes tens of billions of dollars for border security, new visa programs to bring more high- and low-skilled workers to the country, requirements for employers to check all workers' legal status, and a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally.
GOP House leaders have rejected that approach, vowing instead to proceed with bills addressing individual immigration issues, beginning with border security. And although by advocates' count more than 20 House Republicans have now declared their support for some kind of citizenship path, the majority of House Republicans remain opposed, creating a potentially unbridgeable divide between the House and the Senate. Congress also faces looming deadlines on the debt ceiling and spending bills to keep the government running. It all adds up to a tough environment for getting an immigration bill to Obama's desk.
Nonetheless, pro-immigrant advocates are claiming success in their August recess efforts to pressure House Republicans to act on immigration in the fall. An unusual and deep-pocketed alliance of Catholics and evangelicals, labor unions, business groups and others have been targeting dozens of GOP members viewed as open to hearing them out, and say they'll have momentum on their side when Congress reconvenes.
"The big story I think of the August recess is that we haven't seen what some had predicted, this major anti-immigrant movement where members of Congress would be heckled into inaction," Galen Carey, vice president of government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, said on a media call this week to announce a $400,000, 14-state radio ad campaign in support of immigration reform. "We've seen very much that that has been a muted voice, but actually the pro-immigrant voice has been rather prominent at many of the town halls that we have observed."
Although there have been no giant public rallies to draw national attention, pro-immigrant advocates have kept up a drumbeat of activity nationwide. They sent some 1,500 supporters into House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy's Bakersfield, Calif., district last week; delivered a 10,000-signature petition to Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas; and launched a statewide tour through Wisconsin, among other activities.
They're pointing to comments in the past few weeks from a handful of House Republicans, including Reps. Daniel Webster of Florida, Aaron Schock of Illinois and Dave Reichert of Washington, indicating qualified support for eventual citizenship for immigrants here illegally. So far, though, such comments have not become too widespread, and it's uncertain they'll add up to a real impetus for action in the fall.
But immigrant activists who'd been concerned that this summer could be a repeat of the last immigration fight -- or of 2009, when irate voters trashed Obama's health care bill at unruly town hall meetings across the country -- are starting to breathe easy.
The Stop Amnesty Tour event Aug. 12 in Richmond was to have been followed by events in other states, several of which subsequently disappeared from the Tea Party Patriots' website, according to an archived version circulated by the pro-immigrant group America's Voice. Organizers said most were going forward or rescheduled and disputed the claim by America's Voice that events were being canceled due to lack of interest.
"I think that when I heard about what happened at the Richmond event, we just look at what can we do to improve going forward, and one thing would be to give people more than 72 hours' notice," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. The group is working on the events with others, including NumbersUSA, which advocates lower immigration levels.
The Black American Leadership Alliance, which opposes allowing more immigrants into the country to compete for jobs, canceled a series of rallies, according to cached copies of Facebook postings collected by America's Voice. But Leah Durant, the group's founder, said those events were being held by local groups and the Black American Leadership Alliance was just trying to help support them.
"When I look at the focus of what's going on, I wouldn't say that there's no enthusiasm," Durant said. "I hear from people every day who say they are very concerned about this."