Anatole Senkevitch isn’t Hispanic. He’s not young or illegal either. But he is the face of the U.S. immigration reform movement. Or at least one of them. He’s a foot soldier in a carefully choreographed political campaign that has carried the movement closer to its goal than ever before.
The retired architecture professor in the pressed khaki suit and glasses took turns talking and being talked over at a recent planning meeting of the Silver Spring, Maryland, chapter of Organizing for Action, the non-profit advocacy group that grew out of President Barack Obama’s presidential re-election campaign.
The group is one of many in the Washington area and around the country pressing Congress to pass legislation that would take steps to legalize the presence of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Their efforts have taken on added urgency in recent weeks as a growing number of Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress are showing a willingness to tackle the divisive issue.
On a recent afternoon in a Silver Spring living room, Senkevitch practiced telling the story he would share with his congressmen on Capitol Hill. He mixed in memories of how as a boy of seven he joined his agronomist grandfather on a grapefruit farm in Texas after his family fled the Russian revolution of 1917.
“My grandfather had direct experience with braceros,” Senkevitch told a small group of activists, all in their 50s and 60s, and all typical Americans in the sense that they or their parents or their grandparents came from another country. Bracers were guest agricultural workers.
“My grandfather talked to me about the whole problem and the fact that the attempt then, as now, is never to put a human face on immigration,” Senkevitch said. “These people are invisible statistics.”
“These people” are the millions of foreigners living and working in the U.S. without proper legal documentation. Their fate is the focus of debate in Congress this week as a bipartisan group of senators presents a long-awaited plan to overhaul the U.S. immigration system.
Congress has tried to tackle this issue before. In 2007, then-president George W. Bush’s attempt to make the biggest changes to immigration law in decades failed in the Senate.
Opponents of the Bush plan to give illegal immigrants legal status flooded Congress with phone calls and emails and faxes. They spoke out on talk radio and cable TV. Their voices were more influential than the millions of immigrants who had marched for reform the previous spring. Critics of the reform movement are still vocal and determined, but their push against legalizing unauthorized immigrants has lost a bit of its wind.
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the pro-reform group, America’s Voice, said the death of the 2007 bill brought on a period of reflection among immigration reformers, eventually giving birth to a much stronger lobby. That lobby not only includes Senkevitch and low-wage Hispanic immigrants, but high-tech giants like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Christian evangelicals, and once even stalwart conservative opponents to reform.
“The movement realized that we had been fighting a policy battle in Washington when the rest of the country was having a culture discussion that we weren’t engaging,” Tramonte said. “While we were talking about the criteria for legalization, we weren’t talking about ‘Who are the immigrants we’re talking about? They’re your neighbors, they’re your family, they’re your friends.’”
The reform movement reorganized. America’s Voice was created in 2008 by Frank Sharry, a central figure in the immigration policy debate for the past 25 years. Tramonte said the team focused on unifying the message with other players and learning to communicate it through online media.
America’s Voice and other groups received millions of dollars in support to spread the word from donors like philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
While they were tuning up, the pro-reform lobbyists also were gearing up. Between 2008 and mid-2012, more than 3,000 advocacy groups registered with Congress to lobby on immigration for nearly 700 clients, according to the transparency group the Sunlight Foundation.
They have spent more than $1.5 billion on the reform effort since the last bill failed in 2007. Their client list is diverse, including schools, dairy producers and big corporations such as McDonald’s, Microsoft and WalMart.
At about the same time, Cristina Jiménez was finding her voice. She is a young woman from Ecuador whose parents overstayed their tourist visas, hoping to give their children a better life in New York.
Ms. Jiménez and other undocumented, foreign-born youth were tired of hiding their status, tired of worrying about immigration raids and deportation while trying to get through high school and college. They founded the national advocacy group called United We Dream in late 2008.
“It was a transformative experience . . . going from a place of being really fearful, to going to a place of feeling really empowered and really proud that you are not afraid to say that you are undocumented,” Ms. Jiménez said.
They called themselves the “DREAMers,” named after the Obama administration’s Development, Relief, Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would have legalized undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children. The proposal failed in Congress.
Jiménez said the DREAMers studied the successful tactics of the gay rights movement and started “coming out” as undocumented immigrants.
“I received a lot of support after I came out,” Ms. Jiménez said. “I had friends who were really conservative on the issue and sharing my story really changed their view on immigration.”
The DREAMers are part of the Facebook generation, meaning they grew up social networking online. Their stories have gone viral. One video has attracted more than half a million hits on the Web.