Obama delays immigration reform - at great risk

The healthcare battle has helped push immigration reform into next year, when midterm elections may make the task even harder.

Ruben R Ramirez/ The El Paso Times/ AP
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addresses those in attendance at the 6th Annual Border Security Conference held in El Paso, Texas on the campus of the University of Texas in El Paso.

In announcing Monday that immigration reform would be shelved until 2010, President Obama was simply bowing to political reality, say observers.

After bruising battles over healthcare and major initiatives on financial oversight and climate change, the president may not have the political capital needed to oversee any time soon a controversial overhaul of the immigration system – something former President George W. Bush tried and failed to get through Congress twice.

“The longer the healthcare debate drags out not only does it make it harder to get healthcare passed, it makes it harder to get immigration passed,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.

Yet the longer the president waits, the challenges of overhauling the system will only mount, say analysts. Next year Congress will face midterm elections and introducing a bill that could create a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants – what critics call amnesty – would be a political gamble in a time of recession and high unemployment.

Hispanic groups press on

But immigrant advocacy groups have been keeping up the pressure to hold Mr. Obama to his promise to Hispanic voters – that he’d make immigration reform a top priority during his first year in office.

“If we don’t see a vote in Congress sooner than later, we will see a large Latino community not showing up at polls in midterm elections…. That is something the Democratic Party needs to measure,” says Francisco Lopez, executive director of CAUSA, the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s a very challenging time for the president, but the emerging Latino community is expecting the president and Congress to keep their promise,” says Mr. Lopez.

He added that he was disappointed to hear the president wouldn’t push for reform this year, but not surprised.

Obama first told Hispanic reporters at the White House last Friday that he hoped to have an immigration reform bill drafted this year but not introduced to Congress until early next year.

On Monday, at a meeting with the presidents of Mexico and Canada, Obama acknowledged it would be a tough fight: “This is going to be difficult.... There are going to be demagogues out there who try to suggest that any form of pathway for legalization for those who are already in the United States is unacceptable. And those are fights that I’d have to have if my poll numbers are at 70 or if my poll numbers are at 40.”

A divisive issue

The opposition to President Bush’s attempts to pass immigration reform in 2006 and 2007 was fierce and split the Republican Party. Even with a Democrat-controlled Congress, Obama will face similar challenges.

Earlier this year, Obama appointed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to be an intermediary with Congress on immigration. Obama said Friday that she would try to work with lawmakers on the most contested issues, such as how to deal with the 12 million immigrants currently living in the US illegally.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Secretary Napolitano said it’s clear “everybody wants” immigration reform. The challenge, she said, is to determine “what are some value-added things we can add to enforcement and at the same time really begin looking afresh at future labor flows and also the issue of those in the country already ... Some of these things have already had a majority of the Congress vote for, just never in one bill.”

So far, the Obama administration hasn’t differed hugely from the Bush White House in its approach to immigration. It has emphasized border security and expanded a controversial Bush program on verifying worker status.

But it has eased up somewhat on large-scale workplace raids. And on Tuesday, Napolitano said the administration was revising controversial laws that allowed local law enforcement officials to enforce immigration law and is also revamping the immigration detention program.

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