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Opponents on immigration reform gear up for forthcoming battle

Obama has signaled he’ll take up immigration reform soon. As a result, both sides are mobilizing their forces.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / January 5, 2010

A US border agent checks a gate near San Diego.

Jorge Duenes/Reuters

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Immigration reform is far down on Washington’s “to do” list, after healthcare reform, the Afghanistan war, and job creation. But outside the Beltway, in America’s community centers and protest venues, you’d think someone had already pushed the hot button to bring this always-simmering issue to a boil.

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Though the Obama administration and the Democrats who control Congress are not expected to take up immigration reform until later this year – and possibly not till the midterm elections are over – both sides are already rallying their grass roots in anticipation of a fight that, some say, could make the great immigration debate of 2007 look like a playground spat.

The end of 2009 saw opponents of reform organizing dozens of anti-immigration “tea parties,” while pro-reform groups coordinated thousands of strategy sessions with local activists across the country.

Both sides feel a fresh sense of urgency. Those who oppose immigration reforms that would legitimize some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States say reform makes even less sense now that the recession-racked US economy is losing jobs and has a 10 percent unemployment rate. Those who favor a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and a more open-door immigration policy see the most opportune political climate in years, with a Democrat-controlled White House and Congress.

For its part, the Obama administration appears to have begun laying the groundwork – increasing border security and law enforcement – to move soon on reform legislation.

But public positions on the issue have, if anything, become more complicated since the 2007 debate on immigration reforms proposed by President Bush.

“This issue is one that Americans have seen a lot more of – moving from the national stage to state and local communities,” says Pete Brodnitz, principal partner at Benenson Strategy Group, a consulting firm that conducts its own polls.

“Americans have a more knowledgeable and nuanced opinion than they did a few years ago,” says Mr. Brodnitz. “They understand that the issue is really complicated and not lending itself to easy solutions.” Benenson’s most recent poll in June found that 86 percent of American voters given details of comprehensive reform want Congress to pass a plan.

Other polls show a slightly less rosy picture. A Pew survey from April found that the proportion of Americans who favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants – if they pass background checks, pay fines, and have jobs – has risen since 2007, up from 58 percent to 63 percent. But it also showed that partisan differences have grown: Democratic support for reform has jumped from 62 to 73 percent, while Republican support for reform has fallen from 56 percent in 2007 to 50 percent in June.

In some states, conservative activists are mobilizing to try to stop immigration reform before it gets going. On Nov. 14, more than 50 “Tea Party Against Amnesty and Illegal Immigration” rallies took place across the country.

Granting amnesty will create competition for the millions already out of work, says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has 250,000 members and is preparing to barrage Congress with e-mails and phone calls. “Flooding the market with more wage-suppressing labor is not the answer.”

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