The Obama Administration’s focus on immigration enforcement up to now offers a useful preview of what a likely legalization proposal will include in 2010 and how it will fare in a historically partisan and divided Washington.
Firstly, a reform bill would include a proposal to extend legal status to the nation’s 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants. This is one of the most politically unpopular pieces of Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano’s figurative “three-legged stool” of immigration reform — yet it is one for which the administration has expressed consistent support. It is also the legislative component most important for Latino voters who sealed election victories for Obama in several states in 2008.
Important questions remain about the architecture of this part of the proposal, but most analysts believe it will include requirements that immigrants prove they have been paying income taxes, express a commitment to learning English and show they do not have criminal records.
The second leg is continued immigration enforcement. This is critical, especially to lock in support for immigration reform among conservative Republicans and centrist Democrats. The focus may again remain on undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records, though in this regard the record of the Secure Communities program shows the net has been cast wider than immigration advocates would like. Some of those put into deportation proceedings were undocumented immigrants flagged by local police at traffic stops, for visa violations or under suspicion of being day laborers.
Thirdly, there would be an effort to update the channels for people to legally enter the country. Progressives and conservatives agree that the current approach is grossly outdated, especially for low-wage immigrant workers who essentially lack any option to come to the U.S. In addition, wait times for immigrants with family members already in the U.S. are extremely long: many people hailing from countries such as Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines wait decades for visas to enter the U.S.
Finally, there is the elephant in the room: a temporary worker program allowing firms to essentially import workers into the U.S., likely for two-year stints, which would require the latter to leave the country once their contracts expire. Workers would be unable to switch employers once in the U.S. Business leaders cite this as critical to their constituents, who are desperate for workers.
Immigrant advocates and labor leaders warn such a program would open workers up to widespread exploitation at the hands of employers and would erode labor protections for employees. The powerful AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union are both vociferous in their opposition to a guest-worker program, a critical concern for legislators and advocates who have depended upon the unions’ political and financial support for immigration reform efforts.
What will perhaps be most complicated in the coming months is the timing of an effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, thanks to the upcoming Congressional elections. Legislators, particularly those in the Senate, are still nursing their wounds from the long battle to pass health care reform — which still has not ended. As members of Congress gear up for their campaigns, many analysts are worried legislators will shy away from supporting immigration reform for fear of jeopardizing their seats.
As immigrant advocates and legislators gird up for what promises to be an uphill battle this spring, legislators and their concerns are perhaps the most important consideration.Read the first installment: After Lofty Campaign Promises, More Enforcement From President Obama