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Immigration Advocates Bullish on Obama’s State of the Union

Assured and galvanized by his speech last week in Las Vegas, immigration overhaul advocates don’t expect to hear anything new on the issue from President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address Tuesday.

“I am going to predict he is going to say nothing different, and it’s going to be not as extensive as Las Vegas because he is going to cover a range of topics,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of left-leaning immigration advocacy group America’s Voice on a conference call with reporters Friday.

“Sometimes in the past we have breathlessly counted the number of words and where it was in the speech,” Sharry continued. “The fact that he went to Las Vegas and threw down the way he did has really mobilized and motivated many of us in the immigration reform movement.”

In his speech, Obama made the case for why changes are needed and laid out what he wants to see in the measure, including a path to citizenship, an overhauled legal immigration system, a goal of reducing the hiring of undocumented workers, and continued securing of the border.

“We want him to mention it, but he has already proven that this is his top legislative priority for the first six months of this year,” Sharry said. “We are pretty confident that we are in a good position to move forward.”

Sharry was on the call with Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles; Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together and chair of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans; Javier Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York; and Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

His comments come as a bipartisan group of eight senators released a framework for legislation and are currently drafting a bill. Their framework is similar to the president’s, but the senators want to make the path to citizenship contingent on certain metrics being met with regard to border security.

Obama has said he intends to introduce his own plan if the process gets bogged down.

The goal is to mark up a bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, pass it by April or May and have it signed into law by the end of July, Sharry said. The first Senate hearing is scheduled for next week. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing this week.

But the Republican-led House could pose a challenge for passage, as some members don’t agree that a path to citizenship for those who came to the country illegally should be part of the package.

Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, a member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, recently said he believes strongly that providing a path to citizenship is not the right policy.

“The people that came here illegally, knowingly, I don’t think they should have a path to citizenship,” Labrador said in an interview this week with National Public Radio. “If you knowingly violated our law, you violated our sovereignty. I think we should normalize your status, but we should not give you a pathway to citizenship.

Instead of a path, Labrador said he wants to provide undocumented people a status that allows them to work and go back home.

“Some people are calling it a blue card or a red card,” Labrador said. “Just something that gives them the ability to be in the United States, to come out of the shadows, to work, to travel, to go back home to their home countries, you know, to visit family, all those things. I think we should treat them with dignity, but we should also be fair to the millions of people that are waiting in line that are trying to do it the right way.”

“American people are fair people,” Labrador continued. “But they also respect their citizenship and they want to make sure that we don’t encourage people in the future to come back to the United States. Remember when the last amnesty happened? We were supposed to only take care of 3 million people.”

Immigration overhaul advocates argue that providing a path to citizenship is key to the changes.

“We don’t want to create a situation where we just leave people in limbo, we have enough examples of why that doesn’t work, so let’s create a system that actually does work,” said Salas, of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Overhaul proponents point to the systems in France and Germany where immigrants have not been fully integrated, which have resulted in social problems and, at times, civil unrest.

“When we have said to a group of people, ‘You’re good enough to work here, but you’re not good enough to be one of us,’ it hasn’t worked out well,” Sharry said.

“What’s good for immigrants — having the choice [to become a citizen] — is also good for America so that we don’t create an institutionalized group of second-class noncitizens,” Sharry said.

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