President-elect Barack Obama pledged to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority in his first term in the White House, but the nation’s worsening economic woes may force delays on the campaign promise, experts said.
Some members of Congress also said the timetable for reform may have to await a better economy and a more receptive political climate to providing legal status to illegal immigrants in the U.S. Other Congressional leaders urged quick action on immigration reform, which has stalled in recent years amid fierce opposition.
With growing unemployment, some advocates worried that illegal immigrants would be “scapegoated” for working without authorization. Unemployment jumped to 6.7 percent in November.
The election of Obama and his selection of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano—a moderate on immigration issues—to head the Department of Homeland Security had raised hopes of immigrant advocates that the new administration would submit early legislation to create a pathway for legal status for some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Obama had promised on the campaign trail to make immigration reform, including a legalization program, a “top priority” in his first term.
“We need a president who isn’t going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive immigration reform when it becomes politically unpopular,” Obama told the League of United Latin American Citizens in July.
But Reid Cherlin, a spokesman for Obama’s transition team, said officials with the incoming administration were not available to discuss prospects for immigration reform.
Obama’s transition team has merely named a two-person working group to begin reviewing options.
Georgetown law school dean T. Alexander Aleinikoff previously served as a top official in the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration. Stanford law school professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar previously served as a senior adviser to top Clinton administration officials on enforcement-related issues and has worked on recent projects examining the role of criminal enforcement in immigration policy.
Advocates of stricter border control are pledging to fight efforts to provide legal status to undocumented immigrants, an approach they describe as amnesty. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said immigrant advocates have overestimated the odds of passing a legalization program in Congress.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy organization also based in Washington, said he expects an Obama administration to move for comprehensive immigration reform by next Thanksgiving, calling it “part and parcel of economic reform.”