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Immigration groups ready 'punishment' for GOP

Fed up with Speaker Boehner's hot-and-cold approach to immigration, activists plan to make Republicans pay for inaction.
A protestor wearing a red, white and blue mohawk wig, rallies with civil liberties, immigrant rights and equality groups that attended a May Day protest at in New York City on May 1, 2013.
A protestor wearing a red, white and blue mohawk wig, rallies with civil liberties, immigrant rights and equality groups that attended a May Day protest at in New York City on May 1, 2013.

Frustrated by the Speaker John Boehner's reluctance to press ahead with immigration reform, activist groups are launching an aggressive new campaign to pressure and unseat House Republicans.

"From now on, any lawmaker who does not support comprehensive immigration reform should expect relentless and constant confrontations that will escalate until they agree to support immigration reform," Kica Matos, spokeswoman for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. 

According to FIRM, an umbrella group for a variety of pro-reform organizations, the new tactics signal a move into the "electoral punishment" phase of the debate.

Boehner, who released a set of Republican principles for reform last month, has not ruled out passing immigration reform this year and some of the same reform leaders backing the escalation say they haven't given up on the idea Boehner will eventually move forward with legislation. But their latest action reflects growing concern that House Republicans are close to tabling the issue. According to Boehner, it will be difficult to take action until his members become more comfortable trusting the White House to implement new border security and immigration enforcement measures. 

Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who is close to the reform movement and has often praised Republicans working on immigration, said in a floor speech on Tuesday that he believed reports of reform's demise were premature. But he also delivered a searing indictment of House leadership, warning the Speaker "you are not going to be spared" if reform fails to advance. 

"You thought the Super Bowl was a blow out?" he said. "Wait until November 2016 if immigration reform is still hanging out there.”

A number of House Republicans have suggested punting reform to next year because it's unlikely to help them in the 2014 elections, where members overwhelmingly occupy safe and disproportionately white districts, compared to the 2016 presidential election, where the party wants to improve its performance with Hispanic and Asian voters to compete for swing states like Colorado, Nevada, Florida and Virginia. 

"Let's be clear: It's now or never for the House Republicans," Frank Sharry, founder of the pro-reform America's Voice, told reporters. "If they don't act this spring to take floor action, chances are we won't see reform through legislation until a new president and a new Congress is elected." 

Despite the GOP's strength in the House, immigration groups say there are a limited number of swing districts where Latino and Asian voters make up a significant portion of the electorate, potentially flipping the seat to the Democrats. Last year, pollster Latino Decisions identified 44 GOP districts with "Latino influence," but only 14 where Latino voters strongly threatened the party's hold on the seat. 

Among the few Republicans facing intense electoral pressure to pass reform this year, a number have tried to insulate themselves from the fallout by openly calling for a path to citizenship and criticizing House leaders' inaction on the issue. Several members, including endangered California Republicans Jeff Denham and David Valadao, even signed on to a Democratic proposal modeled on the Senate's bipartisan bill.

The groups behind the new "punishment" plan however, say they will not limit their actions to House members who oppose passing reform this year.

"No Republican is safe," Matos said. "We are delivering a very clear message to the Republican party at large and that's that they better move on reform and they better move on it now."

Immigration activists also plan to continue pressuring the White House to suspend deportations for many undocumented immigrants who would be legalized under reform, a demand Obama has repeatedly resisted. But the new campaign makes clear that, despite Republicans' best efforts to pin the blame for reform's struggles on the White House, activists will hold the GOP accountable if things get off track.