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Obama and Congress: At the Crossroads of Immigration Reform

A prickly issue for both liberals and conservatives, immigration reform will play a key role in shaping 2010's political landscape.
 
 
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Is it ever "the right time" to pass immigration reform and a path to legalization? Using the issue merely to score political points has been the norm for decades, among detractors and some proponents alike.

President Barack Obama is the latest political figure to attempt a comprehensive fix to the immigration system -- or at least, he promised to do so in 2008, in the heat of the presidential campaign.

As January 20, 2010 rolls around -- marking the end of his first year in office -- Obama has not passed immigration reform, but his defenders predict that by that time the stirrings of the immigration debate will have started in the Senate.

"In this country people have always made excuses for delaying justice. But they’re excuses for inaction. The fact is that the president of the United States (Barack Obama) came to office in large part because he supports wholesale reform of the (immigration) system. It’s time for these politicians to turn their promises into reality," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told MaribelHastings.com and Reform Immigration For America before introducing the bill H.R. 4321, presented to the House this week to stimulate immigration reform.

A complicated year

The Obama administration has had a difficult first year: the economic crisis, an unemployment rate of over 10%, and bitter debates over healthcare reform and the war in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Obama reiterated his commitment to the immigrant community at various points throughout 2009.

In June he held a meeting with over 30 members of Congress in both parties. In August, he met with advocacy groups.

In November, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made the promise official: "The first part of 2010, we will see legislation beginning to move."

And on Wednesday, Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor, linked immigration reform to economic recovery, pointing out that legalizing workers would generate more income tax revenue for the federal budget.

“The tax contribution from 12 million (undocumented immigrants) could represent a trillion dollars,” Solis declared in a speech at the Center for American Progress (CAP).

The Senate

In June 2007, when the last attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform failed, only 12 Republican senators voted in favor of the bipartisan bill.

Among Democrats, 15 Senators voted against the bill, and one abstained.

For 2010, leadership on immigration reform among Democrats is in the hands of Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), chair of the Immigration Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The circumstances he faces are different from those of two years ago.

Immigration reform’s most vocal champion in the Senate, Edward Kennedy, has died. Two Hispanic Senators, Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Mel Martinez, have left the Senate.

On the Republican side, the terrain has also shifted. Senator John McCain led Republican efforts supporting reform before the 2008 presidential election, during which he felt pressure from restrictionist elements within his party -- and which he ultimately lost. He faces reelection next year.

Republican leadership on the issue lies with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has infuriated ultraconservatives by supporting immigration reform. He has rebuked his critics by noting that there is a difference between being conservative and being blinded by ideology.

The Republicans face a dilemma: pander to nativists to secure the votes of the far right, or support immigration reform to avoid losing the Latino vote forever.

Meanwhile, Democrats are challenged to find Republican support to compensate for the votes they will lose among conservative and moderate Democrats who currently, as in 2007, do not support reform.

Despite all this, debate on the bill is expected to begin in the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)  -- who faces a tough reelection battle in 2010 -- will make sure the issue is on the legislative calendar.

Schumer, an astute politician who understands that winning elections requires showing results, expects to introduce a bill in January.

Karl Rove, a key advisor to George W. Bush, wanted to solidify Bush’s support among Latinos after the 2004 elections by passing immigration reform, but the anti-immigrant wing of his party prevailed. Schumer and others want to solidify and increase Latino support for Obama and the Democrats, and they understand that fulfilling their promise of reform is one way of accomplishing this.

A total of 34 Senate seats will be in play in the November 2010 elections.

The House of Representatives

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Gutierrez is the standard-bearer for immigration reform, but the bill was officially introduced on Tuesday by his Democratic colleague, Solomón Ortiz. The liberal bill was introduced to put pressure on Congress and the White House, and to ensure a seat at the table for its supporters during negotiations over the final bill.

Now as in 2007, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, has reiterated that while she supports the elusive prospect of reform, the Senate must act first.

But the House of Representatives is itself a complex organism representing various tendencies, particularly among Speaker Pelosi’s own House Democrats.

The anti-immigrant faction can count on the votes of the 93 members of the Immigration Reform Caucus (IRC), founded by Republican ex-Congressman Tom Tancredo, which counts six Democrats among its ranks.

Among the 52 members of the Blue Dog Caucus -- conservative Democrats -- in the House, 26 have supported measures against undocumented immigrants.

The pro-immigrant faction could include the membership of Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC). Immigration reform could also gain the support of a majority of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

The elections

In November 2010, however, all 435 members of the House will face re-election. For Democratic congressmen, the straightforward choice will be to back their promises or fail the Hispanic voters who voted in record numbers in 2008 -- including some who voted for Democrats with the expectation that they would make comprehensive immigration reform a reality.

Rafael Prieto Zartha collaborated on this article.

 
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