Documentary shows why immigration movement will survive Congressional dysfunction

No wonder that a cynical news media and opinion makers have hung the “Closed for Business” sign on Congress. Major legislative initiatives like immigration reform have been pronounced dead.

Yet, there is a dogged persistence and optimism among immigration reform advocates that legislation with a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants can break through in this session of Congress, despite its dysfunction.

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Why? The answer can be derived from the lessons of last decade, as portrayed in “How Democracy Works Now,” a poetic, 12-part documentary series featured last week during the New York Film Festival. In the series -- including segments screened for the first time at the festival -- filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini expertly show the legislative parlance, passion and drama of legislative negotiations for immigration reform between 2001 and 2007.

Those years were a fascinating time for journalists -- as I was then -- assigned to Capitol Hill. The turn of the century had delivered a series of complex issues, including a contested presidential election, a Senate that was briefly divided 50-50, the first major campaign finance reform legislation in 18 years and a failed proposal to reform Social Security.

The monumental event, of course, was the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that led Congress to enact national security measures and begin wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Comprehensive immigration reform -- an early priority for then-President George W. Bush -- became an immediate casualty, as anti-immigration hardliners pressed for enforcement only immigration measures such as tighter border security and increased visa restrictions.

The war on terrorism, however, did not quash the immigration reform efforts of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his allies on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers. Indeed, security concerns heightened the national debate as immigration restrictionists in states like Arizona clashed with bipartisan reformers who saw the community, economic and national security benefits of a federal solution for an obviously broken immigration system.

From their behind-the-scenes perch, Camerini and Robertson document how alliances shifted and chasms developed among allies, notably the withdrawal of support by the AFL-CIO. Inside the Senate, meanwhile, where legislation reached the floor in 2006, party leaders seemed less interested in passing a bill than in using immigration as a wedge issue in the next election, threatening Kennedy’s key partnership with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Senate Democrat Harry Reid (Nev.), who stalled the floor action, assigned the blame to the advocates.

“We were played,” an offended immigration reform leader realized in a key scene in the film.

The bill eventually passed the Senate but advocates lacked the political muscle to force a House vote.

As this history was reviewed at New York’s Lincoln Center, the filmmakers, key immigration reform advocates and congressional staffers -- stars of the films -- assessed why they are more optimistic now, given how democracy works now.

First, advocates of 10 years ago are no longer fighting alone. From the ashes of those battles emerged a powerful movement of immigration reformers led by DREAMers, those who were brought to the U.S. as children without documents and now seek citizenship.

The central force of the campaign is not inside the Capitol, in Sen. Kennedy’s former hideaway on the second floor, but in communities across the U.S. where activists are determined to hold Congress accountable until members enact commonsense reform with a path to legalization and citizenship. They showed their electoral strength in 2012 when a record number of Latinos voted and created a mandate for immigration reform.

Another key change is the united front of the immigration campaign. Business and labor, including the AFL-CIO, faith-based groups, advocates of immigrant families, communities of color, agriculture workers and growers, Main Street, Wall Street and Silicon Valley all backed the bipartisan Senate bill and now eagerly await House action.

The coalition also is more strategic. Communicators are armed with polling showing strong, bipartisan support for reform; online campaigns include videos urging voters to call Congress; and rapid response teams have trounced opponents. Field organizers also are able to stage marches and rallies with thousands, or one-on-one meetings with members of Congress in their district offices.

And they are smarter as they watch the dance of this legislation, ready to call out a member who seems more interested in playing partisan politics with the issue than focused on getting a bill through Congress.

“The system yields when you are powerful enough to make it yield,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, the communications arm of the immigration campaign. “It’s under our control. It’s not up to (Congress). It’s up to us. That’s why we can work with the dysfunction.”

Camerini and Robertson, are back in Washington filming what they hope will be this story’s ending.

“We will win,” Sharry predicted at the film festival, “sooner or later.”

Martinez is the founder of GM Networking, a strategic communications firm, and is a former congressional and political journalist.

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