Immigration opponents pessimistic

A powerful grass-roots movement celebrated its success in killing an effort to legalize millions of unlawful immigrants last year. Its influence spread as a procession of presidential candidates proclaimed their support.

But now there are just two candidates for the nation's top office, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. And both have taken immigration stands that restrictionist groups find appalling. Although heavily supported and highly organized, those who oppose illegal immigration suddenly find themselves without a champion.

“That's the reality we're dealing with: a choice we don't consider a choice,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which advocates stricter controls on legal and illegal immigration. “These two guys were pretty much at the bottom of all the candidates. They're the worst, the bottom of the barrel, that ended up winning.”

But a loose coalition of activist groups has rejected the prospect of sitting out the presidential campaign or waiting until next time.

Instead, groups have begun working to hem in the future president. They have pushed for new city and state laws, helping spur hundreds of bills around the country in the past three months. They've held conferences to educate members nationwide and lobby local officials. And they are working to promote the election of congressional candidates who take a hard line on immigration.

The strategy is to reshape the national political landscape to fend off future liberalization proposals.

“We're doing everything we can to dig in, in the states and in Congress,” said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee.

Obama and McCain are seen as largely indistinguishable on immigration. McCain, while toughening his stance recently, has backed proposals providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Obama favors a similar mix of enforcement and legalization.

“The chances of influencing one of these two guys to take a pro-worker, pro-environment position are very low,” Beck said.