04/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Immigration Reform: The Time is Now! Meets Legislative Reality

Hundreds of people who jammed into a Los Angeles union hall for a town hall meeting about immigration reform on Saturday morning got a bargain. Expecting to hear from just one influential member of the House of Representatives, audience members ended up getting two messages for the price of one. 2010-02-21-Becerra.jpgAn idealistic Democratic Congressman, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, shared a podium with the more pragmatic version of himself. One person embodying two realities: a longtime proponent of immigration reform and a realist experienced in vote counting.

The rally was called "2010: The Year of Immigration Reform Town Hall." Sponsored by community and labor advocates of immigration reform, the meeting was held at the offices of the Long Term Care Workers Union, a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.

As the gathering got underway, the multi-ethnic crowd was pumped. Organizers distributed special headsets so that audience members could hear interpreters providing simultaneous translations into Spanish, English, Armenian, and Chinese. Close to where I was sitting, students, mostly girls, from the Social Justice Academy at Hollywood High School wearing "Legalize L.A." t-shirts, applauded as speakers were introduced.

But, from the beginning, calls to action, announcements about forthcoming rallies and marches, and passionate pleas about the pressing need for immigration reform seemed tempered by reality.

The town hall's moderator, Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), announced that two of the invited guests whose pictures had graced the event poster - Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) - had scheduling conflicts and so would not be appearing (Waxman has a safe seat, but Boxer may face a serious challenge from whoever wins the GOP primary). And before Becerra showed up, Salas, clearly anticipating that the Congressman might deliver a somber caution, coached the packed room on how to respond if Becerra demonstrated any inclination to extend the battle for immigration reform beyond 2010.

"I want to hear from you guys: 'The time is now!'" The audience chanted responsively. Salas repeated the instruction. "What are you going to say? 'The time is now!'" And again, for emphasis: "If someone says, 'We have to wait,' what are you going to say?" The students near me along with the rest of the crowd got the point: "The time is now!" they yelled.

Becerra took the stage after other speakers pressed the point. A tearful 15 year old named BeatrIz told of her suicide attempt after immigration agents came to deport her mother. UCLA's Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda summarized a report he recently released arguing that the United States could gain from legalizing illegal immigrants. "We are on the side, not only of justice, but economic benefit," he declared. CHIRLA organizer Rey Barrera enthusiastically described the work of Reform Immigration for America in generating support for an immigration reform bill.

By contrast, Becerra seemed ready to downplay expectations. The son of immigrants ("every day my father helped build America," he said) and the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, spoke forthrightly about the chances for immigration reform. "We don't yet have the momentum," he explained. As if on cue, the girls from Hollywood High chanted almost in a stage whisper, "The time is now!"

Becerra continued his theme, comparing the quest for immigration reform to the civil rights movement. "It didn't happen overnight," he explained, providing his view of what he called "the naked truth."

"It will not be easy, but it will come," he said. "In the House of Representatives, I firmly believe that we will have the votes to pass comprehensive immigration reform," he continued. As the crowd applauded, Becerra described a more complete picture of reality. "But there's always a 'but,'" he said. "In the Senate, I can't guarantee you that there are the votes. And principally I can't guarantee you that there are the votes because in the Senate, a dysfunctional Senate, we need a super-majority to get anything done...The Republicans in the Senate have decided to make every vote in the Senate a supermajority vote. You can't sneeze in the Senate without asking for 60 votes. That's why health care reform hasn't become law."

Becerra, a co-sponsor of the immigration reform bill recently introduced in the House, explained that while some members of Congress are receptive to the idea of immigration reform, "they don't feel it in Washington, D.C. the way you feel it. They don't feel this in some parts of this country the way you and Beatriz feel this," he repeated, referring to the teenager who had preceded him at the podium.

Frustrated questioners asked him about the delays and about whether the President's election promise to bring illegal immigrants in from the shadows was still in play. Becerra cited other domestic priorities - health care reform and jobs.

"He hears a lot from people who say we need immigration reform," Becerra said, "but I don't believe --" At that point, I couldn't hear the rest of his sentence. It was interrupted as the girls of Hollywood High started a chorus that, as it was picked up by others throughout the room, drowned out Becerra's words: "The time is now! The time is now!" It lasted for 50 seconds, and Becerra stood quietly.
"I agree," he finally said as the chanting ended with applause. "I agree. Now, we just have to convince a majority of the House and Senate that the time is now. That's the problem. We have to convince a majority."

As he cautioned patience, Becerra asked the crowd to encourage friends and co-workers elsewhere in the country to contact their legislators, saying lawmakers need to know that support for immigration reform exists in places "where they're not expecting it."

After he finished, one of the students behind me, Leslie, explained her own frustration. Although she is a citizen, her sister and brother are in the country illegally. Brought here by their parents, her sibling and many of her friends can't attend college, and so they perform menial jobs for cash. Feeling vulnerable, they can't complain, she said, so they get paid less than other workers. Her aunt was arrested by immigration authorities and is under house arrest as her case moves through the immigration court. Leslie's family typifies the precarious existence faced by millions of people living in the shadows who also feel, "The time is now!"

Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. His book, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley & Sons) will be available in April 2010.