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Immigration emerges as an issue for Obama

It's still 'economy first,' but advocacy groups and lawmakers are positioning themselves to take on this political hot button.

By Staff writer / April 9, 2009

A US border patrol agent surveyed the desert south of Sunland Park, N.M., during his patrol. If President Obama plans to take up immigration reform this year, he will first need to show commitment to border security, say some on Capitol Hill.

Victor Calzada/El Paso Times/AP/File

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Washington

Call it a trial balloon – on one of the thorniest issues in US politics.

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Immigrant rights groups hailed a report in The New York Times today that President Obama plans to take up immigration reform this year. Opponents said the move could jeopardize healthcare reform and other elements of the president's agenda in tough economic times.

The report, sourced to deputy assistant to the president Cecilia Munoz, reopens in the press an issue that has yet to hit the floors of Congress. It also sends a message to Hispanic groups that helped elect Mr. Obama that their concerns for a path to legalization for some 12 million undocumented workers have not been forgotten.

In a statement, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest national civil rights and advocacy organization, "welcomed today's report in The New York Times that President Barack Obama has made immigration reform one of his top priorities for this year."

White House plays it down

But White House officials on Thursday played down views that the administration's priorities are shifting.

"The president has consistently said that he wants to start the discussion later this year, because our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed," says White House spokesman Nick Shapiro. "But the economy comes first, that's why we're so deeply engaged in that now. We will start an immigration discussion later in the year."

"Obviously there are a lot of things on his plate and a lot of pressing issues relating to the economy," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in a Thursday afternoon briefing. "I don't think he expects that it will be done this year. But obviously it's a big issue out there that the previous administration and Congress worked to try to address, and it's something the president is committed to addressing, as he said throughout the campaign trail."

Mr. Gibbs also announced that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and John Brennan, director of the White House Homeland Security Council, will visit border communities next week to meet with local officials and residents over border security.

Congress under pressure

Over the two-week congressional recess, pro-reform groups are mobilizing immigrant, labor, and faith communities to meet some 200 members of Congress.

"This is an unprecedented coordinated campaign to push members of Congress from the places where they live so that members realize that they are representing a constituency ready to create the political space necessary [for reform]," says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy organization based in Washington.

"What we're realizing is that in order to fix our economy, we need to fix the immigration system," he says. "In order to have healthcare for all, we need to make sure that healthcare doesn't become an immigration debate. Until we fix the immigration crisis, every issue will be taken down the rat hole of immigration politics."

Pro-reform groups were put off by remarks by Vice President Joe Biden to Central American leaders last week that the US administration would need "some forbearance" in moving comprehensive immigration reform at a time when many Americans were losing homes and jobs.

"The can't-do crowd will raise its voice again, but poll after poll has shown that the vast majority of Americans are looking for a fair and effective way to fix the immigration system," said Janet Murguia, NCLR president and CEO, in a statement. "We intend to work with the president and Congress to make this a reality."