News - June 2010

Immigration Reform Update - Can Reform Happen in 2010?

With health care reform finally enacted and pressure mounting to fulfill his campaign promise, will President Obama turn to comprehensive immigration reform next? Will Congress be able to muster enough Republican support to move a bill forward? These are the million dollar questions. Jobs, energy, and cap-and-trade each have the potential of thwarting the Administration’s agenda in the run-up to the 2010 mid-term elections, derailing immigration in the process. So, what are the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in 2010? The answer, like health care, lies in the degree of bi-partisan support that a bill can garner and the degree to which President Obama is willing to exert his political capital.

Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), longtime advocates for immigration reform, met with the President last month to chart a course forward for an immigration bill in the Senate. Such a bill is likely to include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and tough, new enforcement provisions, including a biometric national ID card for all workers, citizens and immigrants alike.

Also in late March, 200,000 people packed the National Mall in Washington DC demanding comprehensive immigration reform. Providing a loud and cohesive voice on behalf of the nation’s millions of immigrants and immigrant communities, the rally was the movement’s largest show of strength since 2006, when mass rallies in favor of legalization erupted in cities across the country. Significantly, President Obama sent a televised message in which he pledged his continued commitment to immigration reform and warned of the cost of inaction. Some, including Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who introduced a comprehensive immigration reform package in the House in December, were inspired by Obama’s speech, noting “a new focus on the part of the president.” Hispanic groups were more circumspect and reacted with skepticism and demanded more urgency.

Then, over this past weekend, two top Senate leaders renewed their support and promised to move immigration legislation forward immediately. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pledged to supporters at a rally in Las Vegas that he would start working on an immigration overhaul as soon as lawmakers returned to Washington after their Spring Recess. He also told them that he has the 56 votes in the Senate needed to pass immigration reform. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) at a Chicago rally echoed Reid’s promise, and said he’d work to secure Republican support for the legislation.

Those facing tough mid-term elections – as well as President Obama – are taking note of Hispanic concerns and can ill afford to alienate this key constituency. Hispanics represent the fastest growing segment of the electorate, and they played an important role in election victories in 2008. Many in the Hispanic community want reassurance not only that the President remains committed to immigration reform but they have demanded proof of action. Specifically, they want to know what exactly the President’s commitment to immigration reform really means.

All the parties agree, however, that a broader coalition must be brought together before any real progress can be made. This means, at a minimum, that another high-profile Republican will need to join Schumer and Graham to co-sponsor a bill. This will be a tall order, as contentious mid-term elections are heating up in key districts. Even moderates like Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, says immigration is not on her radar screen, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a key Republican immigration reform advocate in the past, faces a tough primary challenge from an anti-immigration-reform conservative and has been palpably absent from recent discussions. Further complicating the recruitment of a Republican immigration reform advocate is the rift that was created in the wake of the health care debate. Senator Graham had warned that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if reconciliation was used to push health care through. While Graham himself is staying the course, the wounds opened up during the dragged-out battle for health care reform may not be easily healed or forgotten.

There is no doubt that President Obama can bring much needed political capital to the table. There is also no doubt that President Obama supports an immigration overhaul. But, immigration reform will require strong bipartisan support, and all agree that there is little President Obama can do on the issue until there are more Republicans on board. Was Graham merely sounding an alarm? Were the March and follow up rallies held nationwide successful in thrusting immigration reform back into the national spotlight? Can President Obama do more? Is the best hope for immigration reform a consensus around a measure that could pass sometime after the November elections? With legislators returning to Washington from their Spring Recess this week, we shall see.


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