U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, announced Friday that, if certain conditions are met, he will support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, giving supporters of the proposed legislation an important convert to their cause in Florida.
Webster, who was considered a “persuadable” Republican, in part because about 20 percent of his constituents are Hispanic, had been under pressure all year. One pro-immigration group, Say Yes to Citizenship, said it staged 60 prayer vigils outside his district office in Winter Garden.
And this month that attention was only going to increase. He was facing a series of phone banks, door-to-door canvassing efforts, and offensives at a town hall meetings, all of which had been scheduled during the current August congressional recess. They were organized by the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, Americans for Citizenship, Say Yes to Citizenship and other organizations.
Similar efforts are planned in the districts of specific members of the U.S. House all across the nation, trying to get them to support the bill the Senate passed in July, which includes a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people. Key votes in the House are expected later this year.
Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, which backs reform, was asked if the August recess was important to reform advocates.
“Is it hot in Florida in August?” she responded. In other words, you bet it is.
As for the level of pro-immigration activity Florida residents can expect: “It’s hot and it’s going to stay hot,” she said.
Opponents of the legislation are also promising to be active this month. Everett Wilkinson, a South Florida tea party spokesman, said the path to citizenship for the undocumented is considered amnesty for law breakers by many of the tea party members and they oppose it. He and other tea party representatives from Florida say they are not planning events specifically against the immigration legislation but are encouraging their members to attend town hall meetings with members of Congress, where the issue can be raised among other problems they have with Washington — including Obamacare.
But Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, a smaller but more specialized group that opposes the Senate bill, is organizing members to attend town hall meetings around the state to address the plan to legalize the millions of undocumented.
“We also want to make appointments with Congressmen to speak with them,” said Jack Oliver of Stuart, legislative director for the group. “What we’ll tell them is there is nothing in the Senate bill they should be supporting. Adding that many people to the workforce would only destroy the livelihoods of American workers and depress our wages. And by allowing these people who arrived here illegally to become legal the rule of law will be violated.”
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national pro-immigration reform group, said ever since 2009, when tea party members opposed to health care reform used town hall meetings with lawmakers to strongly express their views, the recess has become more contentious.
“August recesses have taken on this exalted importance as a moment where constituents can be heard,” Sharry said. He says he knows opponents of immigration reform will also be active during the break, “but we are confident that we are going to come out of the August recess with momentum.”
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a group of businesses that support immigration reform, said anyone questioning the importance of the August recess on the immigration issue need only look back to 2006 and 2007. That was the last time immigration was being debated urgently in the Congress. The reform effort back then died due to lack of support after opponents flooded the media with negative ads, she said.
“The summers, that is when we were defeated,” recalls Jacoby, a Republican. “When (Congressmen) went home and started to hear from people in their districts. They would go back to the town they were from, turn on a TV, turn on a radio, open a newspaper, go to a town hall, or look at a billboard for goodness sake and it would say, ‘Build a wall and send (the immigrants) home.’”
She said there was little pro-immigration effort to rebut those arguments back then, especially from Republicans like her who believe immigration reform would be good the nation’s economy.
Jacoby’s group is doing all it can to tutor business owners who support reform on how to reach their Congressmen and deliver a positive message. Those business owners are being urged to attend town hall meetings, but also to invite Congress members to their businesses.
“We need you,” Jacoby told members during a recent conference call. “Politics is not a spectator sport. The other side is going to be hard at work… and if you’re not, your (Congress) member if only going to hear one side of the case.”
Jacoby said business owners should approach even those members of Congress who are dead set against the legislation.
“Even though it’s someone who really disagrees with you, and you know that going in, don’t decide it’s not worth doing,” Jacoby said. “You want him to feel bad when he votes the wrong way. You want him to realize he is going against the wishes of members of his district and members who create jobs and who vote for him.”
Webster announced his position in an interview with The Orlando Sentinel. He is only the third Florida GOP House member, out of 17, to back immigration reform. The other two are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both of Miami. Democrats are in the minority in the House and each Republican who announces support could be crucial if legislation comes to the floor.
Webster said he would only back legalization and possible citizenship for the undocumented once certain benchmarks were reached for border security. He also wants the E-Verify computer system used to ensure that all new hires in the U.S. are legal workers and that people already in the legal immigration pipeline be given priority over those who came illegally.
All those topics are covered in the Senate bill, but Webster says he also wants to see local and state law enforcement agents involved in enforcing immigration laws, which pro-immigration activists oppose.
Kathy Bird, Florida director for Say Yes to Citizenship, said the activists will pay more attention now to several other GOP Congressmen who might be “persuadable,” including Tom Rooney of Punta Gorda, Dennis Ross of Lakeland and Gus Bilirakis of New Port Richey. But she said that didn’t mean activists would stop paying attention to Webster.
“We know the tea party will be mobilizing and getting people to town hall meetings in his district,” she said. She said her coalition would continue to work Webster’s territory to make sure he doesn’t change his mind.