High Hopes For Immigration Reform In The Year Ahead?

High hopes for immigration reform in the year ahead?

By Liz Mineo
The Daily News Transcript (Norwood, MA), January 3, 2009

Immigrants and their advocates look forward to 2009 as a year that will bring change to the country's immigration mess, yet they don't have high hopes.

Although they expect the Obama administration will support a reform granting legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, they recognize the economic crisis has pushed immigration to the back burner.

In Waltham, Latino civic leader Paula Mendoza would like to see Obama, son of a Kenyan, help immigrants, but she is not so certain.

'There is a lot of hope,' she said. 'But Obama didn't promise a lot and he has a lot to take care of now.'

Advocates acknowledge the Obama administration will have their hands full trying to get the financial house in order before attempting to launch any immigration overhaul. It makes sense, they said, but it also makes sense to address the issue that has become the elephant in the room.

'It's a key issue but no one really wanted to touch it during the campaign,' said Pastor Peter Lopez, who runs a bilingual English-Spanish congregation in Milford. 'But it has to get done. It'd help the economy and strengthen our security.'

There are 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, and if they are allowed to become legal residents, they could become full contributors to society, said Lopez.

Fausto da Rocha, executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston, agreed.

'Those 12 million people are not only illegal immigrants,' he said. 'They are workers and contributors to the economy. And if Obama doesn't include an immigration reform as part of his economic plan, it'd be bad for the economy.'

Rocha and other advocates said many immigrants are postponing their plans to return home in hopes that Obama will announce a legalization program sometime in 2009. But most likely, it won't happen that soon.

'It's not going to happen overnight,' said Laura Medrano, Framingham Latino civic leader. 'The economy has to be taken care of first, and that may take a while. Then, they have to come up with comprehensive reform, build bi-partisan support and sell it to the public.'

Most polls say Americans are against a legalization process because, they say, it rewards bad behavior and may encourage more illegal immigrants.

Candidates avoided the immigration issue during the presidential campaign because they were wary of alienating voters, but mainly because the economic crisis was the campaign's dominant issue.

'Immigration became a toxic issue,' said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group based in Washington D.C. that favors restrictions on immigration. 'The two candidates avoided talking about it because they knew it was not going to bring them any advantage.'

When asked about his take on immigration, Obama said he favored a comprehensive plan that included overhauling the immigration system, bringing people out of the shadows and working with Mexico to decrease illegal immigration.

As for undocumented immigrants, Obama said he would support a program by which those who are in good standing could pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line if they want to become citizens.

In 2006, Obama supported the immigration bill co-sponsored by senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R- AZ) that would have legalized millions of illegal immigrants. The bill died in the Senate amid strong popular opposition.

That opposition will continue to be a big obstacle for the new administration, said Vaughan. 'Politically, it would be very reckless if the new administration tries to enact something that lacks popular support,' she said. 'If they're truly concerned about the plight of the American workers, they have to come to understand that what the United States needs to do is reduce its immigration levels and not increase them.'

Vaughan hopes the new administration will put more focus on anti-smuggling operations and continue with the recent emphasis on deporting criminal aliens and work site enforcement, both of which have increased over the past year and a half.

Meanwhile, in Framingham, Joaquim Oliveira doesn't lose hope.

Illegal immigrants keep the economy moving, said Oliveira, who makes a living selling cookware and is an illegal immigrant.

'If they allow us to stay here, we're going to help the economy,' he said. 'If the reform doesn't happen, many people are going to leave, and that wouldn't be good for the economy.'

Like many of his fellow Brazilian immigrants in the area, he expects Obama to live up to his words. During the campaign, Obama said he would put a comprehensive immigration reform back on the nation's agenda during his first year in office.

'He promised change,' he said. 'He has to bring the change that immigrants need.'