WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, Democratic congressional leaders and advocates of revamping the nation's immigration laws say that developing a comprehensive immigration bill this year is a top priority, despite an already full legislative plate that includes a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, overhauling America's health care system, addressing climate change and conducting two wars.
They got a reality check on the potential bumps ahead when the White House recently postponed a bipartisan meeting on immigration that had been set for Wednesday — the second cancellation this month — because of "scheduling conflicts," administration officials told invited guests.
Still, supporters of an immigration overhaul think that Obama will succeed where other presidents have failed and will push through a comprehensive plan that will allow illegal immigrants to come out the shadows and provide them with a path to citizenship.
"While we are disappointed by this delay, it in no way lessens the importance of passing a comprehensive immigration reform package this year," said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "The American public wants solutions to our broken immigration system, and we are confident the president will keep his word by enacting reform this year."
Others aren't so sure. Opponents of immigration restructuring and some Republican leaders think that the debate will fade before it begins, crushed under the weight of more pressing issues and the still-contentious question about what to do with nearly 12 million illegal immigrants, half from Mexico, who're already in the United States.
"It's a very difficult issue," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "With everything on their plate, I see no chance that it happens, unless there's some sort of bipartisan proposal that were to come forward. That's the only way where there's a reasonable chance that it could be enacted this year."
Obama promised Hispanic voters during the presidential campaign that he'd address immigration in his first year in office, a vow that helped him win 67 percent of the Hispanic vote to Republican presidential candidate John McCain's 31 percent.
For now, though, immigration legislation is a work in progress, with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, taking the lead on the issue from an ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who helped craft previous immigration measures.
Schumer said he hoped to have a bill written by the fall. In his 2006 book, "Positively American," Schumer touts a "50 percent solution" for immigration: Reduce illegal immigration by 50 percent while increasing legal immigration by 50 percent.
He thinks he can accomplish this by focusing on stringent enforcement measures against employers who hire illegal immigrants and by establishing a tough but fair road to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States.
"If you can convince people that there will not be future waves of illegal immigration, you have a chance," Schumer said. "The mistake of the bills of the past is they were just not strong enough on illegal immigration."
Immigration is an issue that's long vexed Washington. Former President George W. Bush entered office in 2001 convinced that his pedigree as a border state governor would give him the credibility to push a bill through.
He was wrong. In 2006 — amid street demonstrations by immigration supporters and aggressive denunciations over the airwaves by opponents — the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that died in the House of Representatives, despite Bush's personal pleas.
The Senate tried unsuccessfully to tackle immigration again in 2007, and neither chamber of Congress had the stomach to deal with it during the 2008 presidential election year.
"Bush got killed on the Kennedy-McCain amnesty bill when the economy was good," said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for Immigration Reform, which lobbied against the last two overhaul attempts and is gearing up for Obama's effort. "With a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, it will be tough to convince the American people now to jam the work force with cheap labor."
Advocates of an immigration overhaul, however, think that the economic recession may help their cause by cooling down some of the super-heated rhetoric surrounding the issue.
The lack of U.S. jobs and tighter law enforcement have contributed to a 27 percent drop in illegal border crossings from last year, according to Customs and Border Protection figures that were released last month. That, advocates said, has taken the teeth out of the argument that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from legal residents.
The American public appears more receptive to addressing immigration policy. A poll in January by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 63 percent of the public favored "providing a way for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to gain legal citizenship," a 5 percent increase from a Pew survey in 2007.
Still, some proponents of an immigration overhaul predict a long and uncertain road ahead before a bill is written, passed and signed into law.
"We're already seeing the difficulties Obama is having, for example, in figuring out what to do about Guantanamo Bay prisoners," said Jose Calderon, a sociology professor at California's Pitzer College who works on immigration issues. "And when you deal with a Congress that is not united on an issue, realities come home. I think we're going to have a similar situation in trying to pass a comprehensive immigration policy."
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