In a major push for immigration reform, several advocacy groups throughout west-central Florida are uniting in an effort to pressure federal lawmakers for change.
Hoping to capitalize on momentum from this week's bipartisan U.S. Senate proposal and President Barack Obama's speech on immigration, the group has been organizing rallies, scheduling news conferences, attending town hall gatherings and meeting with members of Congress from Manatee to Polk counties.
"This is the democratic process, right? We're exercising our fundamental rights," said Edwin Enciso, an organizer with Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now, which serves as the main coordinator for the campaign. "That, to me, is the most beautiful thing."
The campaign grew out of a meeting three weeks ago at the West Tampa Library, where advocates met to discuss how they could push for comprehensive reform.
The Tampa Bay Emergency Immigration Summit included more than 50 organizers throughout west-central and southwest Florida, including Sarasota, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties. Advocacy groups represented at the summit included United We Dream Tampa Bay, Mi Familia Vota, and the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Organizers hope the timing of the campaign will bring greater voice to the estimated 800,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida.
They've already won over U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who publicly announced her support earlier this month.
Since the summit, organizers have employed several strategies to gain the support of more lawmakers. Some have worked better than others.
Last week, dozens of organizers attended U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross' town hall meetings in Temple Terrace and Lakeland. They peppered the Republican congressman with questions about immigration.
"My family was undocumented. We know the struggle," said Pamela Gomez, 23, of CIR Now.
Gomez, who became a legal resident in 2001, approached the congressman and requested a meeting. She is expecting to hear from Ross' office within a few weeks.
In Sarasota and Manatee counties, the immigration reform group UnidosNow also garnered some success.
About two weeks ago, organizers there also attended some of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan's town hall meetings. They talked to Buchanan, R-Sarasota, about undocumented field workers and a pathway to citizenship.
Afterward, they approached Buchanan to schedule a meeting and are awaiting a response.
"People would be willing to pay a fine and pay their taxes because they want to be part of this country," said Beatriz Paniego, with UnidosNow. "We just want to talk to him peacefully."
In Pinellas, organizers say they are struggling to reach U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.
In October, they held a rally in front of Young's Seminole office after Young failed to respond to several meeting requests, organizers said. The rally ended with several organizers walking into his lobby to request another meeting.
"We've tried about five different occasions in the past few months to reach out to his office," said organizer Kofi Hunt, 30, with Awake Pinellas. "It hasn't been fruitful."
Harry Glenn, Young's spokesman, said he is not aware of any meeting requests except for one immigration reform advocate who met with Young's staff in December.
Nevertheless, Hunt said, the organizers are trying a new strategy.
Starting this week, organizers will begin polling residents throughout Young's district, including in supermarkets, libraries and post offices, about their views on reform. Within a few weeks, Hunt said they will present the survey results in front of Young's office.
On Wednesday, some organizers met at Ybor City's Centennial Park to discuss this week's nationwide reform efforts. In Wesley Chapel, other advocates were preparing to attend an open house organized by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.
"We are hopeful," said Paniego. "It's just a matter of time."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3386.