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After health-care reform, is immigration reform achievable?

Many say Arizona's stringent new law demands immigration reform from Washington. But Congress may not be ready for another political showdown so soon after health-care reform.

By Staff Writer / May 4, 2010

Day laborers in Chandler, Ariz., line up to be hired. Many say Arizona's stringent new law demands immigration reform from Washington.

Matt York/AP

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Washington

Immigration reform is a steep climb under the best of circumstances. The last president to sign a major overhaul was Ronald Reagan, in 1986. And now, with Washington as deeply polarized as it is – and in the thick of a midterm election campaign – getting anywhere becomes well-nigh impossible.

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That still has not stopped Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada from trying to keep alive efforts to bring an immigration overhaul to a vote this year. Senate Democrats unveiled a new proposal for reform late last week, stressing security first, then a pathway to legalization for the estimated 10.8 million people in the country illegally. The Democrats were making a long-shot effort to attract Republican support, but none was forthcoming, and the issue has receded in Washington as the Gulf of Mexico oil slick and the failed Times Square car bomb attack consume attention.

But for Senator Reid, immigration remains a top political concern: He is embroiled in a tough reelection battle, and he needs the support of Nevada's large Hispanic population – 20 percent of the state.

Arizona's tough new anti-illegal immigration law – which requires police officers to check a person's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the United States illegally – has added urgency to the calls for federal reform.

Critics, including President Obama, fear the law could lead to racial profiling. But the president sounds doubtful that a comprehensive reform that addresses both border security and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants can be finished this year.

"We've gone through a very tough year, and I've been working Congress pretty hard," Mr. Obama told reporters on Air Force One April 28. "So I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue."

Why has fixing an immigration system widely seen as broken been so hard to achieve?

In some ways, analysts say, it's like health-care reform. There are many elements and constituencies, with well-drawn battle lines. After the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 failed to deliver on its promise, a loss of trust ensued, making subsequent reform even more difficult to pursue. And as with health reform, it will take major presidential and congressional muscle to achieve success.

"Immigration brings up very intense emotions for people, even conflicting emotions," says Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group.

"People who are close to the immigrant experience feel a sense of outrage that most Americans don't understand that most immigrants are really good people who work really hard and really want to be American," Mr. Sharry adds. "On the other side, there are people who feel really strongly and outraged. They feel the country, its sovereignty, and its culture are threatened by immigration in general and in particular, illegal immigration."

Then there's the vast, ambivalent middle, and an immigration policy that is not well understood. The 1986 reform outlawed the hiring of illegal immigrants, and required employers to check job applicants for proof of legal status. But fake identification was easy to obtain, and the hiring of illegal immigrants continued apace.

Poorly guarded borders and lax enforcement of immigration laws have made it easy for illegal immigrants – many of whom arrive with visas, which they then overstay – to work their way into American life with impunity. The 1986 amnesty for some has only encouraged more to come. And the system for legal immigration was not reformed.

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