Archived: Immigration Reform Under Obama Likely to be Piecemeal


Grassroots immigrant advocates, emboldened by Latinos’ decisive vote in the presidential elections, already are pushing Barack Obama’s team to act quickly on immigration reform. They also want the new administration to halt workplace immigration raids, something Obama seemed to all but promise in a key campaign appearance on Spanish-language television.

In Washington, D.C., however, longtime participants in the immigration debate say changes to the system may be piecemeal. A real overhaul, they say, is unlikely, at least until 2010. And even tweaks to specific areas such as enforcement will be made in a low-profile manner.

That’s because the new administration won’t want to be seen prioritizing immigration with other issues so clearly taking precedence. The economic downturn and rising unemployment in particular seems to put a chill on the immigration issue. “Immigration reform as we have understood it in recent years is not going to be a first-order issue in the new administration,” says Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and former chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton.

But just because an immigration overhaul won’t be immediately viable doesn’t mean partial fixes won’t be advanced to “address the brokenness of the immigration system,” Meissner says.

Some areas of the system that seem to cry out for attention include a backlog of visa and citizenship applications, the overwhelmed immigration courts, and an inadequate prison system for immigrant detainees (which activists consider an inhumane gulag, and where avoidable deaths have occurred).

So far, though, the most expectation for quick change has centered on the policy of massive work-site raids advanced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in recent years. In these highly publicized raids, scores or even hundreds of immigrants are detained at a time, as when nearly 400 workers were arrested at a meatpacker in Postville, Iowa in May, or when an August raid swept up some 600 workers at an electronics plant in Laurel, Miss.

Immigrant advocates have criticized these large-scale ICE raids for tearing apart families, creating humanitarian crises, and violating due process. Top Democrats, such as House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have spoken out against the work-site raids since the election, and during the campaign, so did Obama.

Appearing on Univision Spanish-language TV network in September, he was asked whether he supported a moratorium on the raids. Though he stopped short of making any promises, he called the raids a “publicity stunt” and added, “They are a tactic to push people away from focusing on the failures of the immigration system as a whole.”

Since the election, an alliance of immigrant rights organizations nationwide calling itself the Fair Immigration Reform Movement has stepped up demands for Obama’s administration to halt the raids.

“I think there’s pressure building, and they’ll need to figure out a way to respond to it,” says Tamar Jacoby, a Republican who heads pro-immigration reform group ImmigrationWorks USA. Tamar Jacoby However, she thinks a public repudiation of ICE’s raids would risk alienating Joe the Plumber-type voters in Middle America. Any changes to enforcement, if they do come, will be made quietly.

Others agree. “I doubt there’s going to be a press conference in which the administration says we’re going to stop the raids,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.

Instead, he says, an Obama-led ICE agency might say it’s zeroing in on exploitative employers and targeting undocumented immigrants with serious rap sheets.

As for comprehensive immigration reform, Sharry believes Latinos’ huge Election Day turnout makes all the difference. “I’ve revised my optimism meter,” he says.

Latinos’ ballots, which were key to Obama’s victory in states like Colorado and Florida and favored him by a margin of two-to-one nationally, create a huge political opening for reform, Sharry says. Poll show Latinos tend to support immigration reform plans that would put 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States on a path toward legalization. (They also tend to decry the raids.)

Although Obama’s choice of Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel as chief-of-staff has been considered a poison pill for immigration reform since Emanuel has been a stalwart opponent, that’s not necessarily the case. “Emanuel is a strategic political guy, he’s not against it on principle,” says Jacoby, of ImmigrationWorks USA.

The key to any successful reform package is to make it politically attractive. If Obama’s administration makes headway on the economy in its first year, if enough pro-reform votes are lined up in Congress, and if activists continue to put the heat on, then Sharry believes immigration reform can happen during Obama’s second year.

Jacoby is not so sure. “It’s going to be an uphill battle,” she says. But she agrees with Sharry on one point: pro-reform groups must remain on the warpath. “We have to be building our strength so that whether it’s on the agenda in the first 200 days or first two years, we’re ready when the battle comes.” Immigrant advocacy groups plan to do just that, beginning with Obama’s first day in office. They plan a demonstration in Washington D.C. Jan. 21 so that their demands are heard early.

NAM contributing editor Marcelo Ballvé is based in New York.

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