Skip to content

Reform Is Coming on Immigration, but Problems Remain

Given last year’s election results, major immigration reform ought to pass in 2009 — but first, the incoming Obama administration has to decide what to do about some draconian policies put into place by the Bush administration.

[IMGCAP(1)]After failing to pass its own reform bill in 2007, Bush & Co. launched a policy of high-visibility workplace raids, mass deportation and rigorous employment verification designed to show that they were tough on illegal immigration.

President-elect Barack Obama denounced the raids during the campaign, but canceling George W. Bush’s policies could open the new administration to charges that it’s “soft” on enforcement — especially at a time of high unemployment among American workers.

Immediate decisions for Obama and Homeland Security Secretary-designate Janet Napolitano are whether to maintain decrees that all federal contractors use the otherwise-voluntary “e-verify” system to check the immigration status of their workers and push private employers to fire workers subject to “no match” letters from the Social Security system.

Immigration rights advocates, unions and employer groups complain that the databases used for e-verify and no match are faulty and that, between them, up to 5 million illegal workers — and some legal ones — could be forced out of their jobs.

Already, the recession has caused large-scale dislocations, business closings and housing foreclosures in Hispanic communities, giving some immigrants-rights advocates hope that economic arguments — if not only humanitarian ones — will convince the Obama administration to cancel Bush’s policies.

The best solution — as even Bush officials acknowledge — is to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would control the U.S. borders; allow in a regular flow of immigrant workers, especially for agricultural jobs; and identify and legalize the status of otherwise law-abiding illegal residents and give them a chance to become citizens.

Bush acknowledged in an interview published Tuesday that, in retrospect, he erred in not pushing for immigration reform after his re-election and in trying for Social Security reform instead.

His Social Security initiative failed and, by the time Congress got around to considering immigration reform, anti-immigrant groups and right-wing radio talk-show hosts had whipped the Republican base — and GOP Members of Congress — into a frenzy of opposition to “amnesty” and insecure borders, killing that initiative, too.

Bush’s Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, said in a speech in December that he and Bush were disappointed at the failure.

“But given that Congress has not passed it, the most important thing we can do is enforce the law the way it has been written, and therefore we’ve arrested record numbers of illegal aliens … and we’ve deported almost 350,000 in the past year. That is a record.”

Chertoff also reported that he’d doubled the size of the Border Patrol, built nearly 500 miles of fencing along the Mexican border and increased “worksite enforcement actions” by 27 percent — all to reduce illegal immigration and restore lost credibility for the federal government.

Longtime immigration reform advocate Frank Sharry, now director of America’s Voice, said that “Chertoff worked admirably” for reform, “but after it failed, what he did was disgraceful.

“He let the enforcement cowboys loose on residential neighborhoods, conducted those employment raids that mainly targeted helpless workers, not the employers, and terrorized the immigrant community,” Sharry charged.

He said, “the administration was heavily responsible” for the fact that Latino turnout jumped 40 percent in 2008 over 2004, and went from 56 percent Democratic to 66 percent. In 22 Congressional races where an “enforcement hawk” was running against an advocate of comprehensive reform, the reformer won in 20, according to America’s Voice.

The election results have encouraged reform advocates to expect that Obama will push for comprehensive reform this fall. He’s declared it a “top priority” of his administration and it was the focus of one of his transition task forces.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and various immigration groups are holding events this week to press the cause.

Precisely what a reform package should contain, however, is uncertain. Hispanic Members of Congress and most pro-immigration groups definitely want it to include a certain path to citizenship for illegal residents who have clean records and pay a fine.

Others, like Rick Swartz, founder of the National Immigration Forum, thinks that — in spite of Democratic domination of the government and the party’s promises — “amnesty” for up to 12 million illegal immigrants could still derail reform in Congress.

He advocates an incremental policy of “Ag Jobs-Plus” — passage of a widely supported bill, sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), to admit agricultural workers seasonally and let them earn green cards over a period of years, plus measures to reduce the years-long backlog of people waiting to join family members in the United States.

Swartz’s agenda also would include passing the DREAM Act, allowing 1 million students brought into the U.S. illegally as children to become citizens, and giving green cards to 600,000 or so holders of high-skill H-1B visas.

Because of massive job losses by American workers and opposition from the AFL-CIO, most reformers this year are willing to drop a provision in previous legislation allowing non-agricultural workers to enter the United States and eventually become legal residents.

The Obama transition team reportedly has recommended creation of a commission to recommend solutions to any issues not included in legislation the administration backs in the fall.

Matters covered in legislation and left to the commission might depend on how strong 2010 election prospects are for Democrats from conservative states and districts.

Even though they were trounced in 2008, anti-immigration forces are still ready to agitate for expulsion — not legalization — of illegal immigrants. And they have high U.S. unemployment operating in their favor.

So, in spite of his promises and the vote in November, it will still take courage and political skill for Obama to figure out how to do the right thing, and do it.

Recent Stories

Kissinger and the Capitol

House GOP takes new tack in advancing conservative election bills

Capitol Lens | Pointing out

House debates Rep. George Santos expulsion ahead of Friday vote

Senate Democrats authorize subpoenas related to Supreme Court ethics probe

Sen. Paul uses Heimlich manuever on choking Sen. Ernst