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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.

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 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.

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