Immigration Advocates Cautiously Look for Reform

Deborah Barfield Berry, Gannet News Service, November 23, 2008

With more Democrats in Congress next year and a Democrat in the White House, immigration rights groups are gearing up to again urge lawmakers to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.

But they concede their agenda could be pushed back while the new administration and Congress wrestle with other pressing problems: the struggling economy, the health care crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Immigration advocates say their case is bolstered by the huge Latino support of Democrats, particularly President-elect Barack Obama. Advocates say many immigrant voters supported Obama because he promised reform.

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Efforts to change federal immigration policies have sparked bitter partisan battles in Congress. For years, comprehensive immigration reform measures have failed and scaled-back plans have stalled. Most action on immigration policies has happened on the local level.

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Congressional leaders should “use the power of the new majority to really deliver on this issue,” said Hong [Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition]. “What we’re opposed to is avoiding the issue and letting the issue fester when there are clear solutions.”

But even with increased Democratic majorities in the Congress and a Democrat in the White House, immigration reform advocates are cautious about being overconfident.

“It’s not a slam dunk,” said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, adding that bills will need bipartisan support. “In the Senate, you still don’t have every Democrat on board.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada plans to take up immigration reform but is still working with the new administration on timing, said Jon Summers, a Reid spokesman. House leaders also have promised to consider measures.

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Donald Kerwin of the Migration Policy Institute said that with such differing views, Congress is not likely to act on immigration early in the session.

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But Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said if lawmakers don’t consider the issue early, it could “slide into midterms”—the 2010 election—and again become a contentious campaign issue.

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Democrats “now have a clear shot at governing,” said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. “If the immigration question is still festering two or four years from now, people are going to (doubt) what they can deliver. . . . Democrats will have to do more than not sound like Republicans.”

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