Fixing flawed system is one priority among many
Obama renews campaign pledge, but economy, Mexico's drug violence likely to come first
By Laura Isensee
The Dallas Morning News, March 23, 2009
Washington, DC — President Barack Obama said last week that he wants to follow through on his promise to fix the immigration system. But that goal, always politically difficult, faces major hurdles: the crumbling economy, drug violence in Mexico, and a jam-packed agenda already facing Congress.
'The issue is where [immigration] falls in the range of a lot of pressing priorities,' said Don Kerwin of the Migration Policy Institute, a group that studies immigration issues.
'Can you do them all together? Can they all be accomplished this year or next year?'
Hispanic lawmakers and pro-immigrant advocacy groups said the answer has to be yes, and they praised the president for renewing his campaign promise.
Obama discussed the issue in a California town hall meeting, as well as a West Wing meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
'He's ready to work with us,' said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. 'He just asked for a little bit of time to take care of the banking [issues] and the economic situation and the budget first.'
The recession not only dictates when legislation will happen, but poses political challenges.
'It's more difficult to argue now that immigration reform would bring together willing workers and willing employers for jobs that American citizens wouldn't do,' Kerwin said. 'Things are in such a flux right now. It's unclear what American citizens will or won't do to support themselves,' he added.
Measures to overhaul immigration have flamed out twice recently in Congress. Conservatives objected to what they considered amnesty for illegal immigrants and said border security should be the first priority. Supporters of the legislation said their approach was a comprehensive solution to the issue and argued that it was time for the estimated 12 million people living in the country illegally to be brought out of the shadows.
But with 4.4 million jobs lost since the recession started 15 months ago, it would be irresponsible to bring forward any immigration legislation, said Rosemary Jenks, who directs governmental relations for NumbersUSA, which opposes amnesty.
'It's wishful thinking,' she said, arguing that giving legal status to millions of workers will drive down wages.
Advocates of an overhaul see the economy as playing the opposite role; it could be a trump card, said Frank Sharry, who heads America's Voice, a group that works on behalf of illegal immigrants.
'Getting tough on bad employers and legalizing workers will benefit taxpayers,' Sharry said, citing a 2007 congressional report that said legalizing immigrants would generate $48 billion in federal tax revenue over 10 years.
Sharry also said that legalization would benefit all workers, not just immigrants. If employers have to pay better wages to immigrants, he argued, they'll have to raise pay across the board.
Another obstacle to enacting new immigration policy is the sheer volume of issues facing Congress. Obama is pushing hard to enact his budget, and lawmakers want to tackle major health-care policy this summer. Plus, lawmakers are still responding to the banking and housing crises.
Proponents of immigration reform know that the clock is ticking until the next campaign season, when lawmakers will be reluctant to tackle such a hot-button issue. Latino groups are paying particular attention, keeping in mind that Hispanic voters backed Obama 2-to-1.
'We believe we helped him turn this election, and we want to hold him accountable,' said Janet Murgua, the president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, at a panel in Washington.
Obama reached out to some of those voters last month when he went on a popular Spanish radio show, Pioln por la Maana. He said that he's committed to immigration but has to work on the economy first.
He will discuss the issue next month in Mexico with President Felipe Caldern.
But of higher priority on the agenda will be the drug-related violence raging in Mexico, which has taken thousands of lives there.
Fears that such violence could spill over the southern border further complicates the immigration debate. U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, contends that security on the border – where drugs and people are smuggled north and guns and cash flow south – must be handled first.
'We'll never solve immigration issues until we solve the border security problem,' said Poe, who serves on the House subcommittee that deals with immigration.
For El Paso Mayor John Cook, drug-fueled violence is overshadowing the need for a 'holistic approach to immigration' – his personal priority at a conference on border issues this week on Capitol Hill.
'That [holistic approach] should be the big elephant in the room. With this drug violence … everyone's looking in a different direction,' Cook said. 'I see all the emphasis right now on border security.'
Hispanic lawmakers, who are wrapping up a cross-country campaign on the effects the immigration system has on families, say the issues are separate.
'Some people argued the last time that timing was not right because we needed to secure the borders,' said Cuellar. 'You can always argue the timing is not right.'
But the immigration issue, he added, is 'not going to go away.'