WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2013 -- The forces that helped to bring down a proposed sweeping overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in 2007 are quietly mobilizing to do the same again.
As President Obama prepares to use his State of the Union address tonight to appeal for expanded legal U.S. immigration and a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants already here, activists are lining up their legions of supporters to fight it.
"In 2007, when callers shut down the Senate phone lines and stopped the amnesty bill in its tracks, we had 350,000 members. We've now got 1.4 million," said Rosemary Jenks, chief lobbyist for NumbersUSA, which led the shut-down effort five years ago.
"Our goal is to make sure that every one of those 1.4 million people, plus anyone else we can find, will be faxing their members of Congress, calling their members of Congress, emailing their members of Congress, and making it absolutely clear that the American people are not onboard with this," she said.
Jenks and other advocates for a more restrained U.S. immigration policy say they're unconvinced that a changed American political landscape following the 2012 election, or a reinvigorated bipartisan coalition on immigration reform, means passage of a landmark immigration bill this year is inevitable.
Instead, they describe familiar flaws in current proposals, which they claim won't stand up to public scrutiny.
"It's hard to get people rallying when there isn't even a legislative vehicle yet," said Ira Mehlman of the 250,000-member Federation for American Immigration Reform. "But what happened in 2006 and 2007 is that the information got out – this is what's in the bill, this is why it's bad for you, here are all the gaping holes – and the bill went down."
Obama has made comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, a top second-term priority -- one of the few to have won early bipartisan support.
A coalition of Republican and Democratic senators has unveiled a similar immigration reform plan, with a Senate committee holding the first public hearings on possible legislation tomorrow.
The national debate on immigration has, so far, lacked a groundswell of grassroots opposition, with much attention focused on the union of unusual political allies, such as Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and John McCain, and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer.
But opponents say once details of legislation are put down on paper, a spirited movement against the plan would be only a matter of time.
The anti-immigration reform playbook stresses economics as the most influential factor, disavowing nativism or racism, arguing that flooding the U.S. job market with more low-skill workers would depress wages and further burden financially strained social services.
Buoying hopes for another legislative defeat is the country's comparatively bleak economic outlook from just half a decade ago: The national unemployment rate stands at 7.9 percent (it was 5 percent in 2007), and projections are that the economy and job growth will continue at a sluggish pace.
The Obama administration, critics argue, has also undermined its credibility on border security and law enforcement by carving out exceptions to prosecution under existing immigration law.
"The president is telling us up front, 'OK, the Congress can promise us the moon and the sun and the stars, but I'm not going to enforce it because it's not my policy to do it,'" said Mehlman, referring to the administration's use of prosecutorial discretion to effectively exempt enforcement of the law against certain immigrants.
Debate Over Jobs, Border Security
NumbersUSA and FAIR have called for the mandatory electronic employment verification, whereby employers would check the immigration status of all hires through a federal system. They also seek a national entry/exit system at every port of entry and border crossing to better track visa overstays.
Both measures are included in the initial Senate proposal.
"All employers have to verify the status of their workers. Period. That is the only way to prevent the next inflow of illegal aliens," said Jenks. "Until you do that, you can't talk about amnesty for those who are here."
As part of its framework for an immigration overhaul, the White House has proposed mandatory electronic employment verification that would be phased in over several years. An official said that the administration is also open to an entry-exit system, although it is not part of an official proposal.
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll found an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans support stricter border controls, including 64 percent who say they're "strongly" supportive. Fifty-five percent approve of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, with 41 percent opposed.
Still, immigrant advocates say public support for a comprehensive package of immigration reforms -- which would include stricter border controls and a pathway to citizenship -- has never before been so popular, promising to alter the assumed calculus for getting a bill through Congress.
"I think you're seeing a major change," said Brad Bailey, a Republican and executive director of the Texas Immigration Solution. "Once the specifics are spelled out and explained, people will start agreeing and understanding and comprehending there's a whole plan."
Hispanic Voters Loom Large
Many supporters of an overhaul plan also say the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, with unprecedented Hispanic voter turnout and support for Democratic candidates, amounts to a warning for Republicans about the perils of alienating the fastest-growing voter bloc.
"It's one thing to shoot yourself in the foot. Just don't reload the gun," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina earlier this month.
"I intend not to reload this gun when it comes to Hispanics. I intend to tear this wall down and pass an immigration reform bill that's an American solution to an American problem."
Obama has begun mobilizing his new independent political advocacy group -- Organizing for Action -- to shore up support for his immigration plan among members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, calling on the group's 12 million email subscribers to share their personal stories related to immigration.
"Just telling our stories would change people's minds," wrote Jose Magana, an undocumented immigrant and law school student, in the message. "This is exactly how we're going to persuade people across the country to get behind President Obama's plan for comprehensive immigration reform."
A "Share Your Story" website will collect the narratives, encouraging visitors to submit a video testimonial, still photo of themselves -- or both -- to further personalize the appeal. Organizing for Action later plans to showcase and distribute the stories through various media, an official said.
The strategy mimics an approach the White House and the Obama campaign used regularly over the past four years to try to leverage popular opinion of the president's initiatives to spur legislative action and bolster the impression of widespread appeal.
But opponents of the effort say economics, not emotions, will ultimately prevail in the immigration fight.
"If Republicans think getting on the amnesty bandwagon this late in the game is suddenly going to make Hispanics come flocking to the Republican Party, they really are going to go the way of the dinosaur," said Mehlman. "They're only going to hasten their own demise."
This story has been updated to correct description of the Senate immigration plan, which would include mandatory employment verification and a nationwide exit/entry system.