Immigration takes back seat to big issues
By Brady McCombs
The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), January 18, 2009
Don't count on immigration overhaul reaching the Senate floor anytime soon.
With an economy in a shambles and a host of pressing foreign-policy challenges, analysts predict the once-hot topic will have to wait in line for attention.
That's the case even though the incoming president, Barack Obama, and his selection for homeland security secretary, outgoing Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, say a comprehensive overhaul is needed.
'Immigration reform is a large, important, critical issue that is crying for attention, but relative to what this administration will have to do with the economy and jobs, it pales in comparison,' said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates comprehensive immigration changes.
The earliest he can imagine the debate? Spring 2010.
Most analysts agree that short of piecemeal bills here and there, major discussions about comprehensive immigration legislation have no chance in the administration's first 100 days, or even first nine months.
Addressing an immigration system that nearly all agree is broken will be one of three key border and immigration issues facing Obama and Napolitano, along with border security and interior enforcement.
Here's a closer look at those three issues:
* Bush administration actions: Outgoing President Bush advocated a comprehensive immigration-overhaul bill that would have combined border security measures, a guest-worker program and employer sanctions, and would have addressed the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already here. But despite a pair of serious debates, Congress never reached an agreement, instead settling for piecemeal legislation that only bolstered border security.
* Question facing Obama and Napolitano: Will they push to resume talks on immigration? If so, when?
* Outlook: While the consensus is that the economic crisis will put immigration on the back burner until late this year or early 2010, others suggest the economic downturn and correlating slowdown in illegal immigration provide a unique opportunity to discuss an overhaul to the U.S. immigration system without the pressure of the border being overrun.
'I don't expect it to be taken up until late in 2009 at the earliest,' said William Beach, director of the data analysis center at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
When, and if, the economy recovers, illegal immigration is likely to increase again, and the pressure would return, said Judith Gans, immigration-policy program manager at the University of Arizona's Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.
If that were to occur, the government would have a much more difficult time convincing Congress that its flurry of fencing, technology and additional agents has worked in securing the border, which it can do now, Gans said.
'There's something to be said for them taking advantage of this window, but there are only so many pressing issues that can be grappled with at one time,' Gans said.
Ignoring the topic won't be tolerated for too long by immigrant-advocacy groups, many of whom represent Hispanics who voted for Obama, Gans and Papademetriou said. Rallies in Tucson and across the country are scheduled for Wednesday to call for Obama to deal with immigration-law overhaul within the first 100 days, said Katie O'Connor of the Tucson-based Border Action Network.
Both Obama and Napolitano agree that a long-term solution to the illegal-immigration problem would require a comprehensive bill.
'You have to understand that between Mexico and the U.S., this has primarily been a labor migration,' Napolitano said on Dec. 9. 'You've got to deal with the underlying circumstances of what causes so many people to pick up and leave their homes and go to a country where they know no one. . . . That ultimately has to be federal, and that has to be immigration reform.'
But even if Obama and Napolitano persuade Congress to tackle the issue, reaching a consensus on this highly alienating topic won't be easy.
Any plan must include strong enforcement measures for the border-security proponents and a path to legalization for the illegal immigrants already living here, for immigrant advocates.
* Bush administration actions: Emphasized finding and deporting immigrant fugitives and conducting sweeping arrests of illegal immigrants at plants and factories. The raids drew harsh criticism from immigrant-rights advocates who said such actions separate families and unjustly punish honest workers.
The administration also pushed for employers to sign up and use E-Verify, an Internet-based system operated by the Homeland Security Department in partnership with the Social Security Administration. E-Verify allows an employer to verify a person's employment eligibility. About 100,000 employers had signed up as of Jan. 8, up from 8,600 that were signed up in June 2006, when it was still known as the Basic Pilot Program.
* Question facing Obama and Napolitano: How will they address the job magnet that draws or used to before the current recession illegal immigrants here?
* Outlook: As a border governor, Napolitano knows the importance of creating a threat of punishment for employers who hire illegal immigrants. In July 2007, when she signed a state employer-sanctions law creating some of the toughest penalties in the country for companies that hire illegal immigrants, she wrote: 'The flow of illegal immigration into our state is due to the constant demand of some employers for cheap, undocumented labor.'
But the sweeping raids conducted under Bush might slow down or stop, Gans said. Obama has called the raids troubling, and Napolitano said she will review the practice. Gans expects work-site enforcement measures to continue, but at a slower pace than previous efforts.
'Anything that is harassing companies and making it harder for them to run their business in a floundering economy doesn't seem like it would be a real high priority,' Gans said.
* Bush administration actions: It oversaw what is likely the largest and fastest buildup of fencing, technology and manpower along the southern border in history:
* The size of the U.S. Border Patrol doubled to 18,000 agents from 9,000 in 2001.
* Funding for border security and immigration enforcement grew by 156 percent, including emergency funds, to $12.3 billion in 2008 from $4.8 billion in 2001 when Bush took office, the White House said.
* Through February 2008, the administration had awarded Boeing Co. $1.154 billion in contracts for Secure Border Initiative projects, which included virtual fences in Arizona that suffered glitches and major delays. The second version of the virtual fence is currently on hold.
* Hundreds of millions of dollars were paid to private contractors to bring the total miles of border fences and vehicle barriers to 520, up from 145 miles in September 2006. In the process, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff used a waiver granted to him in the Real ID Act of 2005 on four occasions during his tenure to bypass environmental law and move forward with the fencing project, angering many environmentalists and border residents.
* Question facing Obama and Napolitano: Will they continue to build border fences, put up virtual fences and hire Border Patrol agents at breakneck speed like the Bush administration has done during the past two years?
* Outlook: Both Obama and Napolitano appear to support the three-pronged approach of fencing, technology and manpower, but most experts predict they'll slow down the buildup substantially.
Napolitano gained notoriety for her quote, 'Build a 50-foot fence; I'll show you a 51-foot ladder.' But she doesn't completely oppose fencing.
'Some fencing strategically placed as part of an overall plan can have an impact,' Napolitano said on Dec. 9. 'The mythology that I have opposed is this notion that you can build a San Diego-to-Brownsville fence and that somehow substitutes for either a good border security plan or immigration policy. It doesn't.'
One of the first key decisions the incoming administration must make is whether to resume the Boeing-led virtual fence project, which has been plagued by ineffectiveness and setbacks and is on hold. In December, Napolitano declined to weigh in.
'Until I actually get in and see what the status of the project is, the status of payment of the project is, what's anticipated, what problems have been incurred and the like,' she won't comment, she said.
The current decrease in illegal immigration offers an ideal opportunity to evaluate the current border-security strategy, said Papademetriou, of the Migration Policy Institute.
'We should be at a point in time where we take a step back and say: 'We've grown this animal to this extraordinary size, and we have fed it with all the fuel it has asked for and sometimes beyond what it has asked. So, is it doing the job it is supposed to be doing?' ' he said.