Obama to Face Critical Immigration Test Early

Silla Brush, The Hill, Dec. 31, 2008

President-elect Obama will likely make several tough decisions on immigration policy during his first few months in office, even if he postpones wide-ranging reform until later in his first term.

Obama will be under pressure from interest groups to review or drop several administrative policies aimed at curbing illegal immigration, which President Bush enacted after he failed in 2007 to persuade lawmakers to pass broad legislation that would have put millions of immigrants on a path to citizenship.

“I think immigration is shaping up to be an issue that he is going to face a consensus of pressure,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “There is no reason a number of administrative actions can’t be put into place in the first 100 days.”

Immigration was not one of the top policy objectives laid out by Obama during the campaign. But labor, business and immigrant-rights groups sense an opportunity to push their agenda after Hispanic voters broke in large numbers for Obama and helped him win four battleground states: Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and Nevada. Noorani wants to see legislative movement on an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws by Thanksgiving of 2009.

The Obama transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

The executive decisions Obama will inherit are relatively tame compared to the political firestorm Bush set off when he called for the most sweeping changes to immigration law in two decades—which included legalizing the undocumented population. Opponents criticized those efforts as providing “amnesty” to millions of illegal immigrants.

When the legislative effort fizzled, Bush settled for pursuing a more measured approach through stepped-up Border Patrol efforts and workplace enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as well as supporting ways to check whether employers have workers who are in the country illegally.

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Immigrant-rights advocates are also tackling a related homeland security system called E-Verify. The program, which Obama has supported, allows companies to voluntarily check whether their workers can be employed.

Keehner, the DHS spokeswoman, said there is “very little” reason for a company to avoid using the system, “unless you are for some reason in favor of hiring illegal immigrants.”

The program is up for congressional reauthorization in March, but the more pressing matter is a planned expansion of the system next month.

The Bush administration issued an executive order requiring that federal contractors or subcontractors use the system. That has raised the ire of immigrant-rights advocates.

The Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit in federal court just last week against the proposed expansion. Unless there is a court injunction, the expansion will take effect on Jan. 15, less than a week before Obama is inaugurated.

“The DHS intends to expand E-Verify on an unprecedented scale in a very short timeframe, and to impose liability on government contractors who are unable to comply,” Johnson said. “Given the current economy, now is not the time to add more bureaucracy and billions of dollars in compliance costs to America’s businesses.”

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