Whether the U.S. House is going to take up immigration reform this year is still an open question, but elected officials from the border region want to make sure the economy is part of the conversation.

Nearly 200 people gathered Monday night in an auditorium at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind on West Speedway for a dialogue about immigration reform.

Experts from Washington, D.C., border city mayors and Southern Arizona Reps. Ron Barber and Raúl Grijalva, both Democrats, talked about current bills being discussed and answered a handful of questions from the audience at the end of the two-hour discussion.

“Border communities are so much more than immigration legal or illegal, documented or undocumented, and that hasn’t been part of the discussion,” Bisbee Mayor Adriana Badal said.

For communities such as Douglas, infrastructure at ports of entry and technology are more important than doubling the number of Border Patrol agents, Douglas Mayor Daniel Ortega said.

“Are we going to invest in Mexico and partner with them? There are many people who want to tour and shop and go back,” Ortega said. They have to wait in line sometimes for several hours, which hurts the economy, he said.

The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill in June that includes a path to legal status for the more than 11 million people estimated to be living in the country illegally, as well as more than $40 billion to double the number of Border Patrol agents to nearly 40,000 and to invest in technology.

But House leaders have said they won’t take the Senate’s bill, instead focusing on a piece-by-piece approach. A handful of bills have made it out of the Judiciary Committee but have not been brought for a full vote.

Recently, three House Republicans embraced a House Democratic comprehensive immigration reform plan similar to the Senate’s except for the so-called border enforcement surge.

Instead, in the proposed bill the Department of Homeland Security is charged with developing a strategy for improving border security based on conversations with people who live and work in border communities, Barber said to a round of applause from attendees of Monday’s discussion in Tucson.

“We all know with three Republicans on board it’s not going to go too far, but it’s keeping the conversation alive,” said Barber, one of 189 co-sponsors.

If the House doesn’t act by the end of this year, Barber said, gains made might be lost. “I’m not sure we can go to 2014.”

Many conservative Republicans oppose a path to legal status for those who are already in the country, concerned that it will reward those who break the law. Instead, a growing number are favoring a more limited approach that would benefit youths brought into the country illegally by their parents, the so-called Dreamers.

The changing demographics — especially as they pertain to the growing Asian and particularly Hispanic communities — as well as a stronger movement in favor of reform is what differentiates this year’s efforts from the last effort to reform the immigration system, panelists said.

“We really have virtually every community saying we need to fix this system,” Barber said. “They may differ on details, but it’s a very important development we hadn’t seen before.

“The way to influence colleagues on the Republican side is to really drive the economic argument hard,” Barber said.

Activists haven’t taken a break, either during the August congressional recess or when most of the government was shut down. Massive protests and demonstrations were held, included protesters chaining themselves to the wheels of two buses carrying people to federal court in Tucson to be criminally prosecuted for immigration offenses.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or 573-4210. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.