Call it a trial balloon – on one of the thorniest issues in US politics.
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."
Response to Thursday's report gives lawmakers an early look at how tough the battle to change the nation's immigration laws this year will be.
Immigration reformers weigh in
"I expect there is going to be some significant pushback in Congress and from proactive enforcement groups – and more important, behind-the-scenes pushback form Democratic members of Congress calling the White House," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes less immigration. "The president is being put under a lot of pressure by some very demanding and, in our view, extremist constituents of his base."
The issue of border security helped sink immigration reform in 2007. Opponents say that the Obama administration will have even more difficulty convincing the public that it is serious about security – and visits of administration officials to the border won't do it.
"The Bush administration tried to restore credibility by making progress on REAL ID and worksite enforcement. But all those things are actually being stopped now," says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which favors increased border security and less immigration.
The failure of the Obama administration to require that employers use E-verify – a Web-based government program to confirm that workers are legal – in the $787 billion stimulus program could mean that up to 300,000 of those jobs go to illegal immigrants, he says. "Those are not the kind of policy decisions that help you build the case that you are thinking about hard-working American families. In the end, the administration is going to have its hands full attempting to deal with an issue of this kind in extraordinary economic times."
Heavy lifting ahead for lawmakers
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill say that immigration reform this year will be a heavy lift and that reform has no chance unless the president fully engages on the issue.
"Today's confirmation from a White House official that President Obama will begin addressing our flawed immigration system this year is right on track with his commitment to immigration reform and his willingness to take on our country's toughest challenges," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D) of California, the House deputy Democratic leader. "I am confident that with his leadership, we will finally be able to make progress on smart immigration reform that reflects our values as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws."
At the same time, Democrats are revamping their case for immigration reform around the issue of the economy.
"Our top priority in Congress is to get this economy back on track. We are working hard to make progress there, and more will be done," said a Democratic leadership aide, speaking on background. "A key component of economic recovery is restoring fairness in our labor markets, and immigration reform is part of that effort.
But the aide adds: "It's a very difficult thing to do this year. We'll just see if the president gets behind it and if there can be some action in the Senate."
At the least, the renewed immigration debate sends a message that the White House has not forgotten the issue in the urgency of economic news.
"Clearly, the Latino groups have been trying very hard to get this issue moved up on the agenda, and the concession the administration has been giving them is favorable mention," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.