PHOENIX — On a recent evening, dozens of people file into the storefront of a Phoenix strip mall to attend a weekly meeting of the local Tea Party chapter. The guest speaker is Rusty Childress, a longtime activist against illegal immigration.
“Tonight we want to talk about the S. 744," Childress said. "It’s a monstrosity.”
S. 744 is the thousand-page-plus bipartisan immigration reform bill that is before the U.S. Senate.
The bill is likely to have enough Republican votes to pass the Senate with strong support as early as this week, thanks to the addition of an amendment approved on Monday that shores up border security.
But comprehensive immigration reform will face its toughest challenge in the House of Representatives. And Childress is trying to drum up new allies to ensure the legislation's defeat.
The crowd seems to share his outrage that the bill would offer what they believe is amnesty to people living in the country illegally, and bring in more foreign workers.
A woman in the audience raised her hand.
“I want to know, why do they want to give away this country like this?” she asked.
This spring, Childress and a small core of activists formed a coalition called Remember 1986. The name is a reference to the last major comprehensive immigration reform package that included amnesty for unauthorized immigrants.
“And it didn’t work last time, it was a sham,” said Childress, because illegal immigration didn’t stop. “Right now we are demanding that this bill be thrown out. It is not a good enough bill to even amend at this point.”
Childress said he’s confident there will be a repeat of what happened back in 2007, when right wing pressure stymied an immigration deal in Congress.
“I believe it will be 2007 all over again as far as, you know, us, the grassroots, the American people, demanding this thing be shut down and melting down the phone lines in Washington," he said.
The national immigration restrictionist group Numbers USA, claims its membership is up and even more active compared to 2007.
This time, the opposition has new allies, such as some computer programmers and engineers who object to an amendment that adjusts the bill's original language to make it even easier for companies to hire foreign high-tech workers.
“This is really just a way for the industry to bring in hundreds of thousands or millions of new workers who will accept lower wages and undermine the existing labor market for American workers,” said Stan Sorscher of the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, a union in Seattle.
So far polling data reveal most Americans support some kind of immigration reform.
But some people, like Alex Khazanovich, are quietly discovering they oppose the Senate bill on philosophical grounds as they read more about it.
Legal immigrants Mark and Alex Khazanovich object to a central part of the Senate immigration reform bill, but do not identify with the larger grassroots movement that opposes it, either.
On a recent evening, Khazanovich sat at the piano with his 24-year-old son, Mark.
"Hit it dad," his son said as Khazanovich improvised on the high notes of the classic piano duet, "Heart and Soul."
The elder Khazanovich learned to play the piano as a child in the former Soviet Union. He spent his adult life in Canada before immigrating legally to the U.S.
Khazanovich became a U.S. citizen after a long process and doesn't like that the Senate bill includes a path to citizenship for people who came illegally.
"It is just wrong to disregard when people do something that is against law," he said.
Khazanovich said the reason he came to America is because the laws are fair and apply to everyone.
"When the government chooses to apply them arbitrarily, that looks like an erosion of freedom."
Instead of citizenship, Khazanovich says those immigrants who broke the law should get a path to legal permanent residency. His son, Mark, has the same complaints with the bill.
But he’s reluctant to be vocal about it.
"People are quick to assume that if someone doesn't support this bill, then, you know, they are labeled as racist or bigots, or things like that," said the younger Khazanovich.
And he said he doesn’t want to risk being misunderstood.
"For, me it is not an issue of a person’s ethnicity or race, but it is just the principle," Mark Khazanovich said. "It wouldn't matter to me what country they are illegally trying to immigrate from. I just don't believe in illegal immigration."
The Khazanovichs say they don’t see a place for themselves in the current opposition movement to the bill, which tends to be more hostile to unauthorized immigrants than they are comfortable with.
So as this fight continues, they will likely be keeping their opinions quiet.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the name of the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace representative is Stan Sorscher.