Falkenberg: Pro-immigration protesters' cause stopped short
The thin gaggle of demonstrators outside the Mickey Leland Federal Building Wednesday afternoon didn't seem to be looking for trouble.
The few dozen protesters wanted to hoist some signs. They wanted to stand on the corner across from a place that sells passport photos and chant "si se puede" at the oblivious rush hour drivers rumbling past.
And a few of them, four, including a couple of media-celeb hunger strikers from the University of Texas at San Antonio, wanted to walk inside. And get on the elevator. And knock on the door of Suite 800. And talk with their senator.
They understood, of course, that Kay Bailey Hutchison herself wouldn't be there. She's rarely there. But they could at least talk to one of her staffers. Start a dialogue. Ask the senator why she won't vote for DREAM Act legislation before Congress that's nearly identical to what she voted for and fought for in 2007. Ask her if the newest version of the bill, filed just the night before by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., could change her mind.
Hutchison is considered one of a few swing votes Democrats need to pass the measure, which offers a path to legalization for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and stayed in school and out of trouble. The newest version of the bill, which addresses many of critics' concerns, could come up for a vote in the House this week, but it's still considered a long shot.
Mostly, the group at the Leland building wanted to let Hutchison, or at least a few of her staffers, see the faces of a few people whose futures depend on the bill's passage.
They didn't get far.
As they approached the tall building with dark reflective windows, an officer with the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Protective Service blocked their path.
"We just got word the office is closed," the officer told the crowd and the scattering of TV cameras and reporters. "You have to call the local number to get an appointment."
The protesters persisted. Couldn't they just walk up to see for themselves if staffers were there? Drop a new version of the bill in her mailbox? Wasn't this a public building? Isn't Hutchison a public official? Could they at least pay a visit to Sheila? On the latter, the officer agreed, though he would allow only two to board the elevator to Jackson Lee's office.
Note taped to door
To the rest of the questions the officer stuck to his script: The office is closed. Call for an appointment.
"We're being denied access to a federal building? Taxpayers and combat veterans are being denied access to a federal building?" called Mike Chavez, 46, of Houston, a tall man in a white Polo with Stars and Stripes collar who said he served 15 years in the Air Force.
"Are members of the media allowed in?" I asked the officer. He told me no. I decided to walk in anyway. Officers inside started to turn me away when another offered to escort me up to Hutchison's office.
"We don't want to give the impression that the federal government is closed for business," he explained in the elevator, asking not to be named. But he said he and the other officers were simply honoring Hutchison's request.
The senator's office appeared empty through the glass doors. I knocked and no one answered. Taped to the glass was a one-paragraph statement the senator had released earlier this week, explaining why she couldn't support the version of the DREAM Act then being discussed.
It was the same statement her office had e-mailed to me when I asked for comment. It didn't answer my questions. It only left me with more.
For one thing, it explains that, in the past, Hutchison had supported a "temporary student visa" to allow undocumented students "who have lived here their entire lives" to further their education.
Path to residency
In the decade since its existence, the DREAM Act has been a path to legal permanent residence for college students and military members, not a "temporary" visa. And if the students had lived in the U.S. their entire lives, they wouldn't need authorization to live here.
Maybe Hutchison's staff was concerned for their safety. Protesters were arrested at her San Antonio office earlier this week. Maybe they've just grown tired of listening.
Back downstairs, the crowd had begun to chant, "This is our building! Let us in! Let us in!"
The officers, who now numbered four, stood their ground, arms crossed, faces drained.
The protesters began to walk away, some with parting words.
"This is a great lesson in democracy," 64-year-old retired schoolteacher Gloria Rubac told the officers. "You ought to be embarrassed. Mickey Leland is rolling over in his grave."