Activists Keep Heat On Obama Over Immigration

Activists keep heat on Obama over immigration

By Tim Gaynor
Reuters, January 28, 2009

Phoenix (Reuters) — When U.S. President Barack Obama took office last week, a coalition of south Texas landowners wrote to his new administration urging an end to a wall-building program on the Mexico border.

The following day, hundreds of pro-immigration activists rallied in Washington calling on the new president to halt workplace enforcement raids and revive a thwarted bid to overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.

As Obama settles into the White House, he faces renewed pressure from pro-immigration activists to keep a pledge to support immigration reform, or at the least, roll back some of the get-tough immigration policies of his predecessor George W. Bush.

'If immigration reform's not possible soon, then at least stop the immigration raids as it is something that is very important to the (Hispanic) community,' said Antonio Bernabe, an organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles who joined the rally in Washington a week ago.

Pressure on Obama, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, also comes from residents in south Texas, who want an immediate halt to a controversial program to complete 670 miles of barriers along the Mexican border pushed by Napolitano's predecessor Michael Chertoff.

'The overwhelming majority of the population in south Texas is opposed to the wall and votes Democratic,' said Scott Nicol, spokesman for the south Texas-based No Border Wall coalition, which wrote to Napolitano on inauguration day calling on the former Arizona governor to end construction of the wall.

'So if Obama values that constituency he needs to bring about some changes in the border policies,' he added.

No Time for Reform?

Divisions over immigration run deep in the United States. Hard-liners decry illegal immigrants as a drain on resources and want them rounded up and sent back to their countries of origins.

Obama backed a comprehensive immigration reform proposed by Bush two years ago, seeking tougher border security and a path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows. The proposal was killed by Republicans in Congress.

Activists on both sides of the immigration debate say he would be unwise to reopen a divisive fight over immigration as the country sheds half-a-million jobs a month amid the worst recession in eight decades.

Opponents say Obama is unlikely to tackle comprehensive reform until the second or third year of his term. Advocates say he could raise the issue as early as September if a stimulus package currently before Congress succeeds in stemming the economic slide, and if progress meeting other policy goals such as healthcare reform is made.

'If there's some signs of additional recovery … and there's movement on healthcare, the country may say '(decisive action) is exactly what we voted for,'' said Frank Sharry founder and executive director of the immigrant advocacy group America's Voice. 'He would be smart to bring up this issue.'

Piecemeal Action

Short of pushing comprehensive reform in coming months, analysts say Obama may seek cross-party support for piecemeal immigration legislation.

Among options are support for the so-called Ag Jobs bill, creating a guest worker program to fill some seasonal farm jobs, or backing for the Dream Act, which would allow high-achieving, undocumented high-school students to seek permanent residency in the United States.

A surer bet, analysts say, is for the administration to use its discretionary powers to bring about a low-key shift in enforcement policy.

Instead of going after undocumented migrants in workplace raids, the administration may increasingly target their unscrupulous employers, or ramp up the use of E-Verify — an electronic employment verification system that allows employers to check the eligibility of new hires.

'What we can expect is support for things like E-Verify, and more prosecutions of employers, but less overall enforcement — and particularly less going after illegal workers,' said Steven Camarota, research director at the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies think-tank.

But with avowed support for additional border police, infrastructure and technology on the border, advocates seeking a halt to the construction of barriers on the Rio Grande may be disappointed.

'Whereas Obama said raids don't work in the campaign, he voted for the fence, and hasn't disavowed that vote,' Sharry said.