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Reality Bites for Immigration Reform Advocates

Immigration advocates hoping to see comprehensive reform move through Congress this year now acknowledge they will probably have to wait until 2010, thanks to the all-consuming health care debate.

“I don’t know,— Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said of immigration reform moving through his panel this year. “I would love to, [but] I think everyone’s been so overwhelmed with health care, it would be difficult.—

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, has for the past two weeks — and arguably the past few months — been focused almost entirely on the health care bill being considered in the Finance Committee, his other high-profile committee assignment.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), ranking member on the immigration subpanel, also serves on Finance, which gives neither Member much time to focus attention on comprehensive reform. A Judiciary subcommittee hearing on immigration set for Sept. 29 was postponed due to the Finance panel’s health care markup.

“My hope is we’d be able to make some progress— this year, Cornyn said.

Even as reality sets in that immigration reform will have to wait a while, the issue has come up throughout the health care debate. Reform advocates have argued that the two issues are tied to one another and must be tackled to recharge the economy. Additionally, a group of nearly two-dozen House Members called on Democratic leaders to strip language from Senate health care legislation that limits legal and illegal immigrants’ access to Medicaid. The request was a non-starter for Republicans and the provision stayed in Finance’s health care mark that will be voted on in committee this week.

Schumer met recently with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to discuss immigration reform, and he last month penned a letter to her asking that she implement a program for tracking the flow of immigrants in and out of the country.

“We’re making good progress,— Schumer asserted. “Obviously the timetable has been shifted because of health care. We’re very optimistic that people from both sides of the aisle and from both sides of the issue are going to come together to get a bill done.—

Schumer, who has stepped in to take the lead on immigration reform for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), has met with a handful of Republican and Democratic Members and could float a proposal by year’s end. Still, it remains unlikely that legislation will be unveiled this year, and even less likely that the Senate would debate a bill before next year at the earliest.

“We don’t need any working group. We know what the choices are, we just need to roll up our sleeves and get to work,— Cornyn said. “The president has to expel some political capital.—

President Barack Obama has said immigration reform is a top priority, but has acknowledged there’s little room left on the legislative calendar for Congress to move legislation this year. Still, he has said he’d like to get the ball rolling on the issue before 2010.

In a recent interview with the Spanish-language network Univision, Obama conceded that a host of national issues — from the economy to health care — have complicated matters.

“It would be easy for us to get a bill introduced. The challenge is getting the bill passed. And there I’ve been realistic,— he said. “Health care has taken longer than I would have liked, but it’s a big, tough issue. Immigration reform is going to be tough as well, but I think we can get it done.—

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