Despite Obama's vow, immigration overhaul unlikely this year

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 25, 2010 

WASHINGTON — With the overhaul of the nation's health care system almost off his to-do list, President Barack Obama has renewed his promise to revamp immigration laws this year.

"I pledge to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year on this important issue," Obama said in a video message to tens of thousands of activists who were calling for revising immigration laws as they gathered last Sunday on Washington's National Mall.

Chances are slim to none that the president will fulfill that pledge this year, however, as administration officials and lawmakers in Congress have put several other priorities — from tightening financial regulations to creating jobs — ahead of overhauling immigration laws.

Furthermore, lawmakers and pro-immigration advocates question whether Obama has the political capital — and Congress the will — to deal with another potentially divisive hot-button issue after the bruising battle over health care and with November's midterm elections on the horizon.

"There's nobody in there ready to say, 'Hey, let's write an immigration bill.' Nobody," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who co-authored an immigration framework with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that the president recently embraced. "Democrats are risk-averse. If you don't believe me, go ask them about whether or not they want to take up immigration reform in the Senate."

Since Obama took office, there's been little action on restructuring federal immigration law or figuring out what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who already are in this country.

Schumer and Graham's outline of a bill calls for creating a high-tech, tamper-proof Social Security card that would ensure that employers hire only legal workers. It includes a temporary worker program and penalties for illegal immigrants — fines or community service — while allowing them to remain in the U.S.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., introduced a bill in December that would provide 100,000 visas for immigrants from countries that have high illegal immigration rates and would expedite legal immigration for close relatives of U.S. citizens and legal residents. Democrats and Republicans called Gutierrez's measure a nonstarter, however.

There's little evidence that tackling immigration is a burning priority. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel didn't even mention it when listing Obama's post-health care agenda, which includes dealing with financial regulation and job creation, retooling the No Child Left Behind education provisions and amending campaign-finance law to rebut a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permits corporations and unions to finance campaign ads.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a statement about Sunday's immigration rally, said, "We look forward to sending a bipartisan bill to the president's desk." She didn't say when.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said that he and other pro-immigration religious leaders met Monday with members of Pelosi's staff in Washington and were told that any movement on immigration would have to start in the Senate.

"They looked at me straight in the eye and said, 'It must be led by the Senate,' " Rodriguez said. "I left the meeting at Pelosi's office feeling, 'Oh boy, this will be a long climb.' I'm not sure Congress is ready for this rodeo."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday that he was still hopeful about getting to immigration this year. Graham said, however, that if Obama wanted an immigration bill, he should write it himself and have the House of Representatives take the lead, because party-line votes on health care had "taken the oxygen out of the room" and "poisoned the well" in the Senate on immigration.

"The president ought to put one out there on his own," Graham said. "If you're telling the community we're going to do this, you lead. ...You just can't put any capital in it and say it's a big deal right before the election. After health care, it just doesn't make any sense."

The Rev. Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners, a liberal Christian evangelical network, said he came away from meetings with congressional Democratic leaders feeling that the desire to do something on immigration was there, but the will wasn't.

"Is there political support for it in Washington? No, there isn't," Wallis said. "We're asking them to generate the political will and we'll respond with (public) support."

Rodriguez said that Obama must employ the same sustained public sales effort and private arm-twisting strategy he used to get the health bill passed if he wanted to get an immigration bill through Congress.

"The question is if the president has the political capital and the wherewithal" to push a bill through, Rodriguez said.

If immigration isn't addressed before November's elections, congressional Democrats might find themselves voted out of office by the same Latino community that gave Obama 75 percent of its vote in 2008 largely because of his vow to change immigration laws.

Pro-immigration organizations predict that Latino ire over a lack of progress on immigration policy could affect as many as 40 congressional races in November, including Reid's tough re-election bid in Nevada.

"Immigration reform is a litmus test in the Latino community," Eliseo Medina, an international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said last month. "To us, this is a policy issue, but it is also an issue about respect."

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