Obama faces test over immigration
By Steven Stanek
The National (U.A.E.), December 14, 2008
Washington — While many Americans are turning to Barack Obama to engineer a massive economic recovery and draw up a new strategy for two foreign wars, others will look to the president-elect to fulfil a promise he made during his campaign: to take on the contentious issue of immigration reform.
From his protracted primary battle with Hillary Clinton to the presidential race with John McCain, Mr Obama assured audiences he would work to solve a policy riddle that has puzzled politicians for nearly three decades.
I think its time for a president who wont walk away from something as important as comprehensive [immigration] reform just because it becomes politically unpopular, Mr Obama said in July, during a speech to the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic civil rights group. I will make it a top priority in my first year as the president of the United States of America.
At the centre of Mr Obamas approach is a plan to grant citizenship sometimes called amnesty to Americas 12 million illegal immigrants, many of whom work low-skilled, low-wage jobs and live on the fringes of society. He has also vowed to shore up Americas porous borders, across which 500,000 new illegals stream each year, a matter of mounting public concern since the September 11 attacks.
Some see signs that Mr Obama, himself the son of an immigrant, will make good. They view his recent cabinet appointment of Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona and an expert on immigration, as an indication he is serious about reform. Ms Napolitano has been tapped to head the department of homeland security, established in 2001 to secure the borders.
Still, many of Mr Obamas lofty promises came before the collapse of the US economy, which sent the job market into a tailspin and focused peoples attention on their own wallets. Now, some are left wondering how or if Mr Obama will be able to fulfil his pledge to address immigration, particularly when most Americans see his plan to grant amnesty as a challenge to their own economic prospects.
A post-election poll conducted on Nov 5 and Nov 6 by Zogby International showed that 57 per cent of voters believe offering amnesty to illegal immigrants would harm American workers and put a strain on the nations resources.
The poll, commissioned by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based lobbying group that opposes amnesty and supports tighter control of immigration, reinforces a widespread sentiment that illegal workers steal jobs from ordinary Americans, drive wages lower and drain social services.
Such views conflict with those of many special-interest groups, who contend that foreign labourers take on jobs that Americans themselves are unwilling to. The majority views are also at odds with the interests of businesses that benefit from cheap labour.
Still, after employers cut 533,000 jobs in November, the biggest one-month job loss in 34 years, a spooked American public is perhaps even less likely to want to hear arguments for amnesty.
Opponents are already lining up for a fight.
We are going to be extremely vocal if we see, at a time when hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans are losing their jobs, the administration pushing legislation that is going to dramatically increase labour competition and cost, said Dan Stein, FAIRs president.
We want to make it a political liability for them. It is up to us to make it too hot to handle.
In fact, because the issue is so hot, some believe Mr Obama will stay away from it all together, despite his past promises.
It is not something that can be done quickly, cleanly or quietly, said Bryan Griffith, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan Washington-based think tank that opposes amnesty.
It seems to be an American tradition that only second term presidents take up immigration [because] they dont have to worry about another election.
That plan, however, did not work for George W Bush, who had two massive immigration bills rejected by Congress in his second term. And many may not be willing to wait until after the next election.
Immigrant advocacy groups said they expect Mr Obama to act.
We expect him to follow through, said John Amaya, a spokesman for the Mexican
American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who likened Mr Obamas broad support among Latino voters to a down payment.
In recent years, Americas immigrant community has been rattled by an increase in workplace raids and mounting deportations authorised by Mr Bush, who has stiffened enforcement and border security dramatically.
Mr Bush also authorised the construction of an 1,100-kilometre fence along the south-west US border, now nearly complete, which is meant to stem the flow of immigrants into the country.
Critics of such policies hope Mr Obama takes swift action to end them, particularly the raids, which they blame for demonising illegal immigrants and fuelling a growing xenophobia.
And they take comfort in the words of Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who said last month there are plans to move ahead with comprehensive reform in the next session of Congress.
Well do that, he said.
Still, many believe the more likely scenario is that the new president will approach the subject carefully, trying at once to appease cash-strapped Americans worried about the economic impact of amnesty and the civil rights groups who have long fought for it.
Experts said his first real test will come in March, when Congress decides whether to reauthorise funding for a controversial programme known as E-verify, which checks the legal status of new recruits and is used by about 80,000 companies on a voluntary basis.
The programme is scheduled to become mandatory for federal contractors in 2009, a point of contention between groups who support it and civil right groups who say the system is error-prone.
Mr Obama supports the programme, but has also called for improved accuracy.
Joseph Chamie, the director of research for the Center for Migration Studies in New York, said the E-verify battle is just one in a long line of immigration policy skirmishes that Mr Obama will inherit as president.
This is not a short-term issue, he said. It is not going to be over tomorrow morning.