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With Congress back in Washington on Monday, some local immigration advocates reacted with frustration over the growing possibility that lawmakers will forego changes to immigration laws this year because of the ongoing debate over military strikes in Syria and the looming political battle over the country's debt ceiling.

In California, immigration activists held rallies in Petaluma and eight other cities across the state to urge Congress to "get back to work" on immigration reform.

"This is really at their own peril - if House Republicans choose to put this on the back burner, they will pay for it in 2014," said Jesus Guzman, chairman of the North Bay Organizing Project's immigration task force. "This is really what the rallies Monday are about...They need to get back to work or they're going to be out of work."

Rally participants seemed undaunted by reports from Washington that reconsideration of the stalled Senate immigration bill was unlikely until later this year and possibly next year.

"We're pushing ahead locally, no matter what," said George Beeler, president of the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, one of several faith based groups that organized the rally at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Petaluma, in collaboration with the North Bay Organizing Project.

"I think often that things like Syria are an excuse to not deal with domestic issues," he said.

Carrying signs that read, "Keep Families Together," "Immigration Reform Now" and "Obama, Yes You Can," activists called on Congress to approve the bi-partisan stalled Senate immigration bill.

"They have the greatest opportunity to make history by passing immigration reform," said Abraham Solar, director of Latino ministry for St. Vincent de Paul Church.

Solar, who was emcee at the rally, reminded the crowd that Congress has not embarked on such a massive task of legalizing millions of immigrants illegally present in the country since 1986.

"It's about time they welcomed 11 million people," he said.

Martin Bennett, a research and policy analyst for hotel workers union Unite Here Local 2850, was among those attending the rally. Bennett drew similarities between the current immigration movement and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

"It's the external pressure on the Congress that's going to force Republicans to bring the bill to a vote," he said. "We need more people in the streets."

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, reached by phone in Washington Monday afternoon, said talks over Syria and the debt ceiling could in fact dominate the politics in Congress.

"When you put those things together, it backs other things up," he said, adding that Republican "obstructionists" could wage a protracted battle over the budget and the country's debt limit.

The debt limit is the amount of money the federal government can borrow to meet existing obligations such as Social Security, Medicare, tax refunds, military salaries and national debt interest.

Thompson said that immigration advocates he's worked with recognize that changing immigration laws won't be easy and could take longer than expected.

"They know it's a heavy lift, they know there's going to be distractions," he said. "They, like me, know this is one of the most important issues we face."

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who was traveling Monday and could only be reached by phone, called Syria and the debt ceiling "pretexts" for avoiding a vote on immigration.

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"If Speaker Boehner and the House Majority claim that we are too busy or don't have time to do immigration reform, that's just an insult to American intelligence," Huffman said. "It is because they just they don't want to step up and deal with what the country wants on immigration."

At the rally, Teresa Lopez, a St. Vincent de Paul parishioner and local community activist and organizer, echoed a familiar refrain among Latino activists since the last election. She said 2012 was a "walk-up call" for some members of Congress who now realize the importance of the Latino vote.

Lopez said she and other members of her parish will be intensifying their usual voter registration drives next year with groups like the North Bay Organizing Project.

"If they postpone this, let's see how the next election goes," Lopez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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