Sunday, December 9, 2012

Obama plans push for immigration reform

Early next year, the administration will campaign for a comprehensive bill that could include a path to citizenship for 11 million people living illegally in the U.S.

As soon as the confrontation over fiscal policy winds down, the Obama administration will begin an all-out drive for comprehensive immigration reform, including seeking a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, according to officials briefed on the plans.

While key tactical decisions are still being made, President Obama wants a catch-all bill that would also bolster border security measures, ratchet up penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants, and make it easier to bring in foreign workers under special visas, among other elements.

Senior White House advisors plan to launch a social media blitz in January, and expect to tap the same organizations and unions that helped get a record number of Latino voters to reelect the president.

Cabinet secretaries are preparing to make the case for how changes in immigration laws could benefit businesses, education, healthcare and public safety. Congressional committees could hold hearings on immigration legislation as soon as late January or early February.

"The president can't guarantee us the outcome but he can guarantee us the fight," said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers. "We expect a strong fight."

The focus comes amid new analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center that shows illegal immigration is down and enforcement levels are at an all-time high.

Democratic strategists believe there is only a narrow window at the beginning of the year to get an initiative launched in Congress, before lawmakers begin to turn their attention to the next election cycle and are less likely to take a risky vote on a controversial bill.

"It's going to be early," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of civic engagement and immigration for the National Council of La Raza. "We are seeing it being organized to be ready."

The White House declined to discuss its possible strategy while still embroiled in the year-end battle over taxes and spending cuts.

"Our focus is on the fiscal cliff," said a White House official who requested anonymity to discuss the matter.

The official pointed to the president's remarks at a postelection news conference, in which Obama said he would turn to immigration very soon after the inauguration.

But Republicans, including some who are in favor of immigration change, are pushing a go-slow approach. Rather than working on one comprehensive bill, Congress should pass a series of bills that help foreign entrepreneurs, technology workers, agricultural workers and those who were brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children, said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is the highest-profile Republican Latino politician and is expected to be an important GOP voice on immigration.

Small parts of the immigration issue should be tackled before addressing how to create a pathway to legal status for most illegal immigrants in the U.S., Rubio said Wednesday.

"Portions of immigration reform can be dealt with quicker than others," he said.

In conversations with congressional offices, White House officials have said the president would be "all in" on the issue and would want to push for a broad bill. But officials have not been specific about exactly how the president will use the bully pulpit or whether immigration will be a showpiece of the inaugural speech on Jan. 21 or the State of the Union address in early February.

One of the key strategic moves still being decided is whether or not the White House sends Congress a piece of legislation or lets lawmakers take the lead in writing the bill. Republican challenger Mitt Romney criticized Obama during the campaign for not presenting a bill to Congress despite promising to pass an immigration initiative in his first term.

One option is to dust off more than 300 pages of draft legislative language for a large immigration bill that went through a time-consuming Cabinet-level review in 2010 and was quietly handed to members of the Senate.

The 2010 initiative, led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), died in back-room negotiations when it was clear the senators couldn't muster the votes to get it passed.

The draft language creates a renewable visa for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. and allows them to eventually get in line for a green card after they submit to background checks, learn English and pay back taxes and a fine. The proposal also would require employers to use a federal database to check workers' immigration status, among other provisions.

Some lawmakers prefer that the White House not dictate the terms of the bill and leave the hard negotiations to an informal group with representatives from both parties as a way to avoid a contentious ideological fight in the committees, said two congressional staffers who were not authorized to speak publicly about the discussions.

A bipartisan group of six senators met behind closed doors in the Capitol for 30 minutes on Tuesday night for what is expected to be the first of many meetings on how to get a version of the immigration bill through Congress. On the Republican side, the newly elected junior senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, joined longtime immigration reform advocates Graham and John McCain of Arizona for the talks. The Democrats were Schumer, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

But Angela Kelley, an immigration expert with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, believes that Obama will have to step into the limelight, as he has over budget negotiations, to get something done on immigration.

"The congressional conversation has started," Kelley said. "It isn't something [Obama] can take his time on because the cameras and the microphones will be on him asking, 'What are you doing about it?' and he will have to have a ready answer."


A sane approach to immigration reform

For more than five years, Arizona has been the bellwether in addressing our country's broken immigration system. Efforts to fill the enforcement gap caused by federal inaction created a firestorm.

We saw more than 6 million (mostly negative) media hits worldwide. We lost hundreds of millions in convention and tourism contracts. And rhetoric associated with the debate on immigration-related issues created unnecessary social divisions in our community.

Ultimately, our efforts created as much controversy as the problems we sought to address.

The Real Arizona Coalition was formed to combat the negative and vitriolic language around the issue of immigration and to broaden public immigration policy beyond an enforcement-only approach. The coalition includes nearly 40 leadership organizations, composed of thousands of individuals -- law-enforcement officials, civil-rights advocates, business leaders, children's advocates, farmers, health-care professionals, state and local government officials, representatives of faith-based groups, and others.

For more than two years, and with the recent participation from the O'Connor House, Real Arizona Coalition members and other leaders have met regularly in a robust exchange of ideas with the goal of giving shape to a federal immigration-reform policy.

We reached a broad consensus we call the SANE platform. It is based principally on acknowledging the presence of the approximate 11 million immigrants already here without lawful authority and recognizing that many businesses and industries presently rely heavily on this existing undocumented-immigrant labor force. It also recognizes the continued and ongoing commercial and labor interests of states and national businesses that need a rational immigration policy.

SANE is by no means the final say on an immigration-reform platform. But it is a starting point for a reasoned and balanced approach to addressing the shortcomings of our current immigration system and establishing an immigration system that supports our economy and reflects the best of our nation's history of welcoming immigrants.

To that end, we have begun vetting our platform with our congressional delegation, state and legislative leaders and others with a vested interest in resolving the broader issue of immigration, with the hope that Arizona can now provide sound and intelligent leadership on immigration reform that advances a 21st-century American economy.

What is SANE?

Secure our sovereign borders. The Yuma, El Centro and San Diego points of entry are examples of secure border sectors where law enforcement effectively and efficiently interdicts illegal crossers. These successes can be reproduced and implemented across the remainder of our national borders. However, because Mexico is Arizona's largest trading partner, our Arizona ports of entry must be secure and operate in a manner that allows our business and industry leaders to continue to explore opportunities to increase cross-border trading and commerce.

Account for those here without lawful authority. Immigration reform requires that we account for those here without lawful authority and provide a formal and orderly process for them to come out of the shadows, undergo a background check and, if no felony crime has been committed, get on the current tax roles and live and work here legally. This process can also provide needed information for a reform of our immigration system.

Necessary bureaucratic reform. Once we have accounted for those here without lawful authority, we must acknowledge that many people will continue to want to come to America for a variety of reasons. Under SANE principles, those who came to our country after a certain date would not be processed under the same rules as the approximate 11 million here without lawful authority. They would be processed under a reformed visa system that addresses concerns raised by business and higher-education leaders about a shortage of labor and the drain of talent caused by our current immigration system. Any who enter without lawful authority will be deported.

Engage all levels of government. We cannot continue to engage in the same dysfunctional behavior that created and supported illegal immigration. All levels of government must be incorporated into a future enforcement effort that will maximize resources to preclude a reoccurrence of problems associated with criminal activity along the border, including but not limited to drug and human traffickers and potential terrorists.

Through the bold, thoughtful support of organizations and individuals like you, representing nearly every interest impacted by immigration, we are confident that Congress can and will find a working solution for a 21st-century American economy.


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