It’s Back: Immigration Heats Up

Josh Gerstein, Nia-malika Henderson, Yahoo! News, April 3, 2009

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Latino leaders are pressuring the White House to set a goal of signing a major immigration reform bill by the end of the year. Friction between immigrant communities and local police seeking to enforce federal law is increasing, prompting hearings on Capitol Hill and scrutiny from the Justice Department.

And in less than two weeks, Obama will be in Mexico for a presidential summit in which immigration issues will be on the agenda.

“I think, politically, [Obama] is in a tough spot, and he recognizes that the public isn’t where he is on immigration,” said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which bills itself as a “low immigration” think tank. “If you are Obama, it’s a no-win situation, and there is no reason to bring this issue up right now from a political view. You can give a few speeches to the right groups and then say, ‘What else is on the agenda?'”

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Obama dealt with the immigration issue briefly at the White House on March 18 when the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met privately with the president. Lawmakers said he promised a high-profile event on immigration in the next month or two–but said he did not agree to commit to getting immigration reform passed this year. Instead, he said he’ll support efforts to have Congress take up the issue this fall.

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Obama also committed to assign a White House point person on the immigration issue but has not yet done so, the aide said.

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The recession and rising unemployment rates are likely to undercut the already shaky public support for legalization of illegal immigrants. Business leaders are diverted by more immediate issues of corporate survival. And a surge in drug-related killings and assassinations in Mexico could stoke public fears that any immigration-related measure might cause that violence to migrate north, even though advocates insist reform would make Americans safer.

Asked whether the ailing economy would increase public resistance to immigration reform, the administration official said, “You might be right if the debate is about generosity versus being harsh to immigrants. . . . It’s not about whether we’re nice to immigrants or not. It’s about whether we’re doing a smart thing for the economy.”

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The emotion the immigration debate inspires was on clear display on Capitol Hill on Thursday as two House subcommittees conducted a hearing on local efforts to detain illegal immigrants. One very high-profile drive, conducted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., with help from a cooperation agreement with the federal government, is now the target of a Justice Department investigation into possible civil rights violations.

Julio Cesar Mora, a 19-year-old Arizona man who is a U.S. citizen, complained that he and his father, who holds a green card, were pulled over and detained for three hours during one of the sheriff’s immigration raids. “They patted us down and tied our hands together with zip ties like we were criminals,” Mora complained.

Another witness, Ray Tranchant of Virginia, described the death of his 16-year-old daughter and a friend in a car accident caused by an illegal immigrant who was driving drunk and had been arrested before. “Instead of being deported, he stayed on the streets of Virginia Beach to drink and drive and subsequently killed these two beautiful girls,” Tranchant said.

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