Will the Economic Meltdown Push Fixing a Broken Immigration System to the Back Burner?

On the campaign trail last year, Barack Obama promised to make comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) "a top priority in my first year as president."

Stressing the importance of "finally bring[ing] undocumented immigrants out of the shadows," Obama laid out the basic framework of  the deal that died twice in Congress in recent years: "they should have to pay a fine, and learn English, and go to the back of the line," he said. "That's how we'll put them on a pathway to citizenship. That's how we'll finally fix our broken immigration system and avoid creating a servant class in our midst." 

But in his recent address to Congress, immigration was nowhere to be found in the 6,134-word speech. That left some wondering if the new administration had decided to put immigration reform on the back burner, especially in light of the tanking economy. In a recent interview with a Spanish-language radio station, Obama said that because of the economic meltdown, the environment for passing a comprehensive reform bill in this Congress would be even more difficult than in past years. But he also said he was "very committed" to making it happen. 

The basic outline of CIR is a grand bargain between proponents of stronger enforcement efforts and immigrants' rights advocates. It would beef up border security, increase workplace enforcement, give employers the ability to check the immigration status of potential hires and create a path to legalization that would allow undocumented immigrants to "get in the back of the line" for a green card if they pay fines, learn English if they aren't already proficient and prove that they've paid their taxes in full.

As an approach that tries to split the difference between ideological camps, it is imperfect; I've called it the "least bad solution" that has a chance of getting passed.

Immigration reformers are hopeful that it will get done. Frank Sharry, director of America's Voice, a leading reform group, told me, "it's our guess that the legislative debate will commence in the fall and that the president will lay relatively low on the issue until then." Sharry said that the reason he's hopeful is that "there's a growing recognition among policy makers that the election this past November was a game-changer.  Latino and immigrant voters turned out in record numbers, they helped turn at least four red states blue, and immigration emerged as a defining issue for the fastest-growing group of new voters in the nation." 

Doug Rivlin of the National Immigration Forum agreed. "The prospects for reform are very good if advocates continue to build power and make it happen," he told me.  "The Obama administration can read election results."

Rivlin predicted "strident but weaker Republican opposition to legal immigration, legalization, and commonsense reform led by Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., in the House and Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., David Vitter, R-La., and other Southern Republicans in the Senate." But, he added, "if the legalization, due-process protections, worker rights and family components of a bill are strong enough, workable enough and generous enough, there will be wide Democratic support and enough Republican support to get a bill to the president." 

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told the Detroit Free Press, "there's been an agreement between Obama and [Arizona Republican Sen. John] McCain to move forward on that. ... We'll do that." When asked if he had the votes to pass some form of CIR, he said: "We've got McCain, and we've got a few others. I don't expect much of a fight at all." Reid promised to work with the administration on the timing, but most of the analysts I interviewed expect a push for comprehensive reform this fall. 

What, precisely, that will look like remains to be seen. In 2007, the fragile coalition of groups that advocated CIR -- one that included the business community, human- and civil-rights activists, religious groups and other stakeholders -- fell apart over several issues, notably the inclusion of a guest-worker program that wouldn't allow migrant workers to eventually attain permanent legal status.

For progressive reformers, this recalled the disastrous Bracero Program of the 1950s, which in effect tied immigrant workers to their employers and was infamous for the abuses those ties allowed to flourish.

Another contentious issue in the 2007 bill was an attempt to shift the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy from "family reunification" to a points system that would have increased the number of highly skilled and better-educated immigrants but virtually closed the door to lower-income workers -- those who make up the bulk of the illegal population. 

But those with whom I spoke are optimistic that a slightly different coalition will hold together. Simon Rosenberg, director of the New Democrat Network, a centrist group that's been in the thick of the immigration debate, told me, "if people want to resolve these issues, they can." He believes a modest guest-worker program is key to winning broad support, including the support of a number of Republicans.

"Getting 5 percent of the workforce out of the shadows, giving them the opportunity to unionize, getting them minimum wage protections -- this is such an important goal for progressives that they need to be willing to accept some compromise," he said. 

The original 2007 bill included a guest-worker program that would have allowed as many as 400,000 migrant workers, but an amendment halved that number, capping the number at 200,000 per year for two years. The guest-worker program was a key part of the bargain hammered out between McCain and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in 2006.

Rosenberg fears that a bill without a guest-worker program may not earn the support of key members of the GOP, including McCain, who rightly feels a sense of ownership over the legislation.  "It's going to be hard without McCain, because no Republicans want to be seen running to his left on immigration," Rosenberg said. 

But compromise comes with potential pitfalls, foremost among them is the prospect that reformers would end up with a bill that's too far to the right to gain the support of the progressive community. As Rivlin recounts, that was a major issue in the past.

"In 2006, a bipartisan Senate bill crafted by Kennedy and McCain started in the center and was pulled to the right somewhat on its trip to the Senate floor and passage," he said. "In 2007, a weak and unpopular President Bush worked with the other Republican senator from Arizona, Jon Kyl …  It started farther right and continued to move right.  The workability of the bill was suspect and building support for the bill among pro-immigrant advocates was difficult, to say the least." 

Sharry promises a more progressive approach this time around.

"I suspect we'll see a legalization program that will be more affordable and straightforward to navigate, a greater emphasis on the aggressive enforcement of labor standards (such as wage theft, worker safety, classification of independent contractors, etc.), support for the equal treatment and social mobility of all low-wage workers, a more viable approach to employment verification than the dysfunctional E-Verify system [and] a strong family reunification component." (Sharry laid out this vision in greater detail in an AlterNet exclusive last year.) He added: "I think many of us have learned that the tensions between the left-leaning progressives and the centrist-leaning pragmatists in favor of reform have to be managed more adroitly and be seen as complementary rather than competitive." 

According to Rivlin, "the key to getting a bill passed is to thread that needle correctly, balancing what will work -- what immigrants will actually do in terms of legalization conditions and choosing to go through legal channels -- with what will pass with enough support in both parties and both houses."  

Still, not everyone in the reform movement is optimistic.

"Obama is not likely to push anything this year, when the fate of the capitalist system itself hangs in historic doubt," says Roberto Lovato, a journalist and immigrants-rights activist. While predicting a "softening of the Bush approach," Lovato thinks the Obama administration "will likely undertake cosmetic administrative reforms and tout them as the 'cambio' he was elected to bring."

On the Bush policy of detaining tens of thousands of undocumented workers in a largely privatized prison system that has been rife with horrific abuses, Lovato expects "fewer raids, provision of basic health services to detainees and reversals of 11th-hour Bush decisions," but no fundamental changes to the "hypermilitarized" approach of Bush's second term.

"I can't see Obama taking on Boeing, Corrections Corp. of America and others feeding off of the multibillion dollar trough of the military-industrial migration complex," he said. 

But incremental changes are already under way. Obama's first budget proposal contains money for reducing the massive backlog of applications for permanent residency, and when ICE conducted a workplace raid in Bellingham, Wash., the administration was quick to claim that the agency had undertaken the action without the knowledge of new Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano. 

And Politico reports the administration is gearing up for a major top-to-bottom review of immigration policy. According to the report, "key officeholders are Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, White House Intergovernmental Affairs Director Cecilia Munoz, who was previously a civil rights and immigration advocate, and Esther Olavarria, who was named to a top policy post at the Department of Homeland Security. Olavarria previously served as counsel to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Refugees." 

Ultimately, the prospects for reform may hinge on Obama's approval numbers later this year.

"Barack has set a precedent of swinging for the fences and tackling the big issues," said Rosenberg.

Immigration is certainly big, and tricky, but if the administration has the political capital come fall, we can expect to see a third push for meaningful reform of our dysfunctional system.


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