News Analysis: Obama Launches Immigration Reform Effort, But Lines Are Already Being Drawn

By Suman Raghunathan, FI2W consultant
President Obama at Thursday's meeting with lawmakers on immigration reform - Photo: The White House.

President Obama at Thursday's meeting with lawmakers on immigration reform. (Photo: The White House)

Finally, the much-expected meeting on immigration reform between President Barack Obama and lawmakers from both parties took place Thursday. Participating legislators said the president promised to put his energy into moving forward right away.  The response from some reform advocates was “Game On!”  But the various sides have already started drawing lines in the sand — spelling out what they will and will not accept.

Reps. Anthony Weiner (D.-N.Y.) and Joseph Crowley (D.-N.Y.) reported that President Obama began the meeting by promising to “use whatever political capital he has left” to enact comprehensive immigration reform this year.

See a White House video of the meeting:

Thursday’s meeting and the White House’s creation of a working group on immigration reform –to be headed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano– were lauded by immigrant rights groups such as America’s Voice, which called Thursday “a turning point” and declared: “Game On”.

The renewed commitment from the Oval Office might allay advocates’ fears that the current economic crisis, as well as Obama’s high-profile efforts to enact health care reform would prevent the President and Congress from dealing with immigration this year.

After the meeting Rep. Weiner expressed confidence that there are enough votes in the House to enact a large-scale immigration reform bill — a claim directly contradicted earlier Thursday by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.  House Majority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi expressed her “absolute commitment” to immigration reform, noting she would defer to the Senate to tackle the legislation first.

Political strategy aside, shaping the components of the legislation will prove tricky and complicated. Here’s what will likely be on the table:

First, and perhaps most importantly, a large-scale legalization program to bring the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and provide them a way to apply for legal status and eventually citizenship. President Obama reaffirmed his campaign promise to enact immigration reform before Latino clergy leaders last week.  The last legalization program was in 1986 under the Reagan administration.

Many Latino and immigrant voters will be paying close attention to how the administration broaches this elemental piece of immigration reform, especially after many political analysts underlined how crucial immigrant voters were to Obama’s 2008 victory in swing states ranging from Virginia (immigrants are 10% of the state’s population, and nearly half are eligible to vote) to Colorado and New Mexico (one in three voters is Latino; they overwhelmingly supported Obama last fall.)

Immigrant rights advocates point to a poll released this month that underscores support among independent voters for comprehensive immigration reform.

A legalization program would likely require undocumented immigrants to go through a background check for criminal records. “If they’re unworthy, if they’re not playing by the rules, then they have to leave,” said Weiner. Once cleared, applicants would likely pay a hefty fine, affirm their willingness to learn English, pay back taxes to the federal government (or prove they have already been doing so), and go to the back of the already long line for legal status.

President Obama Thursday reportedly cautioned members of Congress against calling a legalization program “amnesty,”  despite anti-immigrant efforts to brand it that way.  He also is reported to have said that “rounding up” the nation’s undocumented immigrants would not help move the nation toward comprehensive immigration reform. Obama’s opposition to a punitive approach toward the undocumented is likely to win him favor with immigrant rights advocates, especially those rooted in Latino immigrant communities that have been hit hard by immigration raids and other enforcement efforts.

Obama, Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Immigration subcommittee, and other Congressional leaders, including Senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.), were all careful to point out that securing the nation’s borders against continued unlawful immigration was also central to an immigration reform proposal.  Federal resources for the increasingly militarized U.S.-Mexico border have soared in recent years, though the Border Patrol recently reported the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended plunged by nearly 40 percent over the last three years to their lowest level in 35 years – likely due to the faltering U.S. economy. Congressional leaders all underscored their commitment to “ending illegal immigration as we know it,” as Rep. Crowley put it.

Another key piece of immigration legislation already introduced in Congress is the DREAM Act, a bipartisan proposal to allow undocumented high school graduates with at least two years of college or military service to apply for legal status. First introduced in 2001, and since then kept alive by the organizing and advocacy efforts of young undocumented immigrants nationwide, the DREAM Act has met opposition from members of Congress who protest it gives a ‘free ride’ to undocumented youth.  The bill would allow roughly 65,000 immigrant young people to gain legal status and dramatically lower in-state tuition rates at state and community colleges.

It’s also likely some form of workplace enforcement program will be part of the discussion.  Such an approach would likely go hand-in-hand with efforts to bring undocumented workers out of the underground economy and level the playing field with respect to wages, workplace safety, and the right to unionize.  President Obama has expressed support for a workplace enforcement program that would target employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers to circumvent fair wage and hour laws.  Unfortunately, this part of the worker enforcement equation is increasingly complicated, and there are few models that have been shown to work.

The existing (and controversial) federal E-Verify program, which would require businesses with federal contracts to screen employees using a Social Security Administration database, has at least a 10% error rate.  The Obama administration has put implementation of this program on hold until September, pending a review. Nevertheless, it’s likely the administration will face some pressure to develop a system to screen potential employees’ work authorization.

Employers generally oppose such programs, and have largely avoided prosecution for hiring undocumented immigrants – with the notable exception of the Rubashkin family, owners of the now-infamous Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa.

Questions abound about how to ensure the future flow of legal immigrants –skilled and unskilled– into the country.  There is currently no way for unskilled low-wage immigrants to legally enter the U.S. with the option to stay here: the existing guest worker program is small, difficult to enforce, and only provides seasonal agricultural workers to a limited number of businesses.

Many believe the last immigration reform proposal in 2007 collapsed over the issue of broadening the guest worker program, an approach popular with business interests (and with Sen. John McCain, who after Thursday’s meeting said he would not approve a bill that didn’t include such a program), and reviled by powerful unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win labor coalition.  Organized labor and immigrant advocates outline numerous concerns over wage levels and workforce protections for workers recruited through such a program, seen decades ago in the much-vilified Bracero program.

Similarly, the existing H1-B program for highly-skilled workers is often decried as too limited and leaving workers at the hands of their employers in the U.S. – an arrangement that deprives them of fair pay and other worker protections.

Even as President Obama announced his commitment to streamline the immigration process and reduce the wait for citizenship application processing to six months, questions remain about other parts of the nation’s immigration architecture, including the immigration detention system.

Over the past year, numerous human rights and due process violations in the nation’s detention system have come to light – including US citizens swept up in detention raids and unlawfully imprisoned, according to Detention Watch Network, which reports the number of people held in detention facilities has tripled compared to ten years ago.  Reports abound of immigrants being deprived of medical attention while in detention facilities. Immigrant and detention rights advocates will likely push hard for increased investigations of the detention system.

Politically speaking,  the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the economy.  Despite arguments from immigration reform advocates that large-scale reform will actually bring economic benefits, members of Congress have so far proven skittish about taking on such a heated issue in the midst of the recession.  But the situation may be changing: Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid recently underlined his commitment to enacting immigration reform this year, and reportedly has gone so far as to hold a place in the Senate calendar for the proposal.