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The New Immigration Strategy Has Some Activists Unhappy

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Immigration advocates and House Democrats gathered on Capitol Hill Wednesday to push for a vote on a comprehensive reform bill—the one that has been collecting dust since last summer. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi introduced a “discharge petition,” which would force a vote on the bill if it gets 218 signatures. As I wrote yesterday, the petition is unlikely to draw sufficient—or any—supporters from the GOP, but the strategy could have another effect. It will give immigration groups an excuse to hammer House Republicans who say they want reform, but don’t step forward to sign—particularly as elections draw near.

But not everyone pushing for immigration reform agrees that the petition is a good idea. This spring, the activist community has retargeted its efforts away from Capitol Hill and towards the White House, in the hopes that the president will take unilateral action to slow deportations. The change in tactics showed signs of success earlier this month, when the administration announced a review of its deportations policy. Now, a few activists—in particular, some who represent young immigrants, or “Dreamers”—are openly breaking ranks and criticizing the discharge petition strategy. Not only do they think it’s sure to fail, they worry that it will sap momentum from goings-on in the executive branch.

As long as the petition keeps hope of Congressional action alive, “the possibility of administrative relief is less,” Lorella Praeli of United We Dream told me, adding, “Our position is very much that the discharge petition isn’t going to get us a vote on immigration.” United We Dream’s managing director, Cristina Jiménez, lambasted the petition strategy in the Huffington Post this week, calling it an “empty push” and declaring, “House Democrats should instead focus 100% of their energy on pressuring the White House to halt deportations and provide administrative relief for our families. … They cannot simply seek political cover by gathering meaningless petition signatures while standing on the sidelines and refusing to take action to ease the suffering in our communities.”

Supporters of the petition disagree: They say it could encourage executive action by making it even clearer that Congress refuses to act. Frank Sharry of America’s Voice said “I respect the different tactical judgments on this” and “I sympathize with the call for executive action now”—but he thinks no matter what, the administration will wait until this coming summer to give up on legislation and act alone. “I think the discharge petition, which is the last gasp of the legislative push, if it doesn’t succeed in leading to a vote, will clear a path to executive action,” Sharry said.

Democrats have been discussing a discharge petition since the passage of the Senate bill, and the aggressive tactic has always raised eyebrows. In August, Greg Sargent of The Washington Post reported that some lawmakers feared it would alienate Republicans, jeopardizing the bipartisan momentum from the upper chamber. With that momentum stalled, House Democrats may have decided they have little to lose.