Immigrants in Philadelphia want help, but Dems say wait until after Nov. 6

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Protesters gather at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office at North Eighth Street after a rally in Center City Philadelphia June 30. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Protesters gather at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office at North Eighth Street after a rally in Center City Philadelphia June 30. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Last week, a group of protesters crashed a Philadelphia fundraising event for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf at Yards Brewing Company. Two miles east of the mammoth brewery, a single mother of four had just ended an occupation at the offices of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, after asking him to do more to support her immigration case.

Seeking action on immigration promises, and warning that their their votes are not guaranteed, immigrants and their advocates have targeted incumbent Democrats before the Nov. 6 midterms. But the Democrats campaign strategy involves focusing on health care and other issues.

Xelba Gutierrez, an immigrant who has U.S. citizenship, participated in the protest against Wolf, calling on the governor to reverse new state prison policies and to shut down a family immigrant detention center in Berks County.

“At some point he said, ‘Vote me in, vote me for governor, and I will help you.’ Which is a classic politician thing to say,” she said. “Politicians run on promises, and then those promises are not fulfilled.”

A request to Wolf’s campaign for comment went unanswered.

At Casey’s office, protesters affiliated with the family of Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and the Sanctuary Advocate Coalition refused to leave for several hours Oct. 10, then blocked the door to the building for more than an hour as the building was closing. Casey, they said, had not done enough to support her case, such as introducing a private bill in the Senate. Casey, who was in Washington, spoke to the group by phone.

Immigration, an issue that has led to protests, encampments, and at least one jig by Philadelphia’s mayor, matters to voters, according to Franklin & Marshall professor and pollster Terry Madonna.

“Immigration, overall, is the fourth or fifth,” most important issue, he said, though it varies by poll. However, it is not a cornerstone of the Democrats’ quest to take more seats in Congress. Instead, some Republican candidates in areas where candidate Donald Trump performed well in 2016 are using the issue in fear-based advertisements.

“The reason the Democrats aren’t talking about [immigration] is because they’re on the right side of the issue,” said political consultant Neil Oxman, whose firm, The Campaign Group, is working with Democratic campaigns in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Democrats instead are running on issues such as health care, the Republican tax cuts, and as a check on President Trump, according to Oxman.

Meanwhile, “immigration is one of those ‘scare’ issues that makes Republican voters vote,” he said.

A recent report in The New York Times underscored that dynamic. The paper found that voter surveys by left-leaning groups and shared with Democrats showed the party is vulnerable to campaign attacks on immigration issues such as sanctuary cities. In one such television advertisement in Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, Republican candidate John Chrin links his opponent Matthew Cartwright to the “radical left” and to Juan Ramon Vasquez, a Honduran man who sexually assaulted a family member after he was released from a Philadelphia jail in 2014. The 8th District — covering Monroe, Pike, Wayne, Lackawanna and Luzerne counties in northeastern Pennsylvania — heavily favored Trump in 2016.  Republican campaign consultants contacted for this article did not respond to interview requests.

Sweeping immigration policy is set at the federal level, and Republicans currently control the presidency and both houses of Congress. On Tuesday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi promised the party would work on protecting Dreamers, immigrants whose parents brought them illegally into the United States as children, if her party wins a majority in the chamber. Trump has signaled he is impatient to make good on one of his campaign promises, a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, setting up another immigration policy battle where the parties have vastly different priorities after the election.

In that way, the treatment of immigration during the midterms is merely a reflection of the current, highly polarized national debate on topic, said Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition.

“I think it’s because immigration has become this partisan issue … It’s just about party posturing,” she said. Prior to 2016, she said, PICC worked with Democrats and Republicans on immigration legislation, such as a bill to give undocumented youth access to in-state tuition that was sponsored by Republican Pennsylvania state Sen. Lloyd Smucker. Now, “the word ‘immigration’ has become a partisan word,” said Carter.

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