With hope for immigration reform all but dead in the House of Representatives, immigration activists vowed Tuesday to move the fight from Capitol Hill to congressional races nationwide and press President Barack Obama to unilaterally curb deportations.
House Speaker John Boehner's announcement last week that his caucus' lack of trust in Obama to enforce immigration laws made action on new legislation unlikely this year has been taken by many as the death knell for immigration reform in the 113th Congress.
Just a week earlier, Boehner, R-Ohio, had generated fresh optimism for action through the release of principles that were to help guide the House Republican Conference step by step on the issue.
Members of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a national coalition of immigrant-rights groups, said Tuesday that they have not completely given up on immigration reform in 2014 but nevertheless have all but declared political war on the GOP.
The Democrat-controlled Senate last year passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration-reform bill that Boehner said Republicans had no interest in.
During a news conference, FIRM members accused Boehner of caving to far-right opponents despite national polls that indicate reform is popular and a belief among many Republicans that their party needs to get the immigration issue off the table in order to be competitive in future presidential elections.
Obama won big among Latino voters in 2008 and 2012, at least partly because Republicans alienated many in the demographic with hard-line rhetoric against "amnesty," or a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11million undocumented immigrants who have settled in the country.
"Persuasion only goes so far, and now, with Speaker Boehner casting doubt that he can actually deliver immigration reform, FIRM is switching tactics from persuasion to punishment," said Kica Matos, director for immigrant rights and racial justice at the left-leaning Campaign for Community Change.
"So, let me just be clear about one thing: 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."
Matos said the group will target Republicans in their home districts and in the halls of Congress. And the political retribution will even extend to potentially vulnerable House Republicans in swing districts with significant Hispanic populations who already are on the record as backing immigration reform.
"No Republican is safe," Matos said.
"If the House Republicans are going to protect people who are in ruby-red districts because they fear primaries, they are going to pay a price with Republicans who are in purple districts, even if they are supportive of reform," echoed Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform organization America's Voice.
Even so, it's unlikely reform advocates will be able to inflict much political damage; many political scientists see 2014 shaping up as a good year for Republicans.
Hopes of scoring gains in the upcoming congressional midterm elections likely played into Boehner's decision to back off reform.
Some of the more optimistic observers suggest control of the Senate may even be in play. Many GOP House members, even those sympathetic to reforming the nation's immigration laws, don't want to change the narrative from issues that they see as benefiting them, such as the rocky implementation of Obama's signature health-care-reform law.
"The Democrats are not going to be in a stronger position after 2014 than they are now," predicted Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California-Irvine.
However, if Republicans were to lose big in the elections, they might be inclined to deal on immigration reform in a lame-duck session just so their next White House nominee won't be dogged by the issue, he said.
The 2016 presidential election likely would be more favorable for reform supporters, and activists said they intend to continue the fight past the midterm elections.
In the meantime, Sharry said he is confident the immigration-reform movement is powerful enough to lobby Obama "to take bold and immediate executive action to stop the deportations," especially of undocumented immigrants who potentially could see their status legalized under legislation.
Sharry called Boehner's contention that Obama can't be trusted a "lame excuse" in light of the administration's enforcement record with regard to deportations.
In 2012, the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows eligible undocumented immigrants ages 15 to 30 who came to the United States as children — a group known as "dreamers" — to stay and work without the threat of deportation. It's possible the administration could expand the program to apply to older immigrants, but Obama has been facing mounting criticism for his use of executive authority to make changes to Congress-passed laws.
"We prefer it to be legislative. We prefer it for Republicans to share the credit," Sharry said. "But if they squander the opportunity, we're going to insist on President Obama to take immediate action.
"We're going to make sure we finally do win immigration reform with a path to citizenship, and the Republican Party will be on the outside looking in and will rue the day that they turned their back on a community that has the support of the American people."
One critic of immigration reform said the activists are "flailing about" as the political dynamics made immigration reform unlikely in this Congress, despite an all-out push by a coalition that included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, organized labor and religious leaders.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said reform "true believers" focus on the political upside for Republicans who join them on the issue but give short shrift to the downside that many will face for crossing their conservative-base voters. Likewise, he said, they don't like to talk about potential problems for U.S. workers that would come with flooding the market with cheap labor.
"It's hard to see how this makes any sense for the Republicans politically, and there remains, in my view, pretty compelling national public-policy arguments against what they want," said Camarota, whose organization supports less immigration and more immigration enforcement. "And those two things they have not been able to overcome despite what can only be described as boatloads of money.
... I think that also adds to a sense of frustration. There is a little sense of entitlement here."
Last week, one Republican House member from Arizona criticized as counterproductive the tactics of "the more radical" immigration activists who "show up and protest in front of a congressman's house and harass his family."
"Every time we walk outside, you end up with a group around you, cheering at you, chatting you up, pushing, pushing at you," Rep. David Schweikert said Friday on Phoenix station KFYI-AM (550).
Schweikert blamed the pro-immigration left for killing chances for a House dreamer bill by demanding "everything" at the expense of an incremental solution.
"They did this to themselves: the over-the-top harassment of Americans on the issue, the over-the-top making up facts and not being honest," Schweikert said.
Matos indicated that Schweikert and other Republicans can expect more confrontations.