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Sky-high unemployment rates threaten to stall immigration reform despite a push by Hispanic and Asian lawmakers to keep the issue on the agenda this year.
The Obama administration has signaled that it plans to start working on the controversial subject but hasnt committed to getting it done this year.
And some Democrats privately acknowledge that the economy and in particular the jobless numbers has to start turning around before they can consider bringing a comprehensive reform bill to the floor.
Otherwise, Democrats in many vulnerable districts will face endless attacks that they are granting legal status to illegal workers at a time when millions of Americans are joining the unemployment rolls.
Whether that is right or not, there is a lot of economic insecurity, and people could be vulnerable to that message, a House Democratic leadership aide said.
The aide also said immigration reform could end up tripping up the rest of the agenda if it were put on the floor too quickly.
Weve got an unprecedented level of challenges right now and a lot on our plate, and weve got a lot of momentum, the staffer said. This potentially could disrupt that momentum. We cant get sidetracked.
Other Democrats also have emphasized the primacy of fixing the economy.
Dealing with the economic conditions that weve inherited is priority one, said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who also listed health care, energy and education atop the priority list.
Pelosi supports bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform as well, Elshami said, but there is no timetable for action. Discussions are ongoing, but there is no legislation.
Republicans say they have been watching the unfolding debate and wondering why Democrats would even consider moving on such a controversial and vexing issue during an economic downturn.
But Obama and other Democratic leaders have long been committed to pushing immigration reform, and Hispanic lawmakers arent willing to wait for too long.
Hispanic advocacy groups and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), are leading the effort to enact reform this year. Gutierrez is in the midst of a national church tour to try to build support and pressure Obama to act.
Gutierrez has focused on the emotional argument of reuniting families and noted the political benefits of action Hispanics overwhelmingly favored Obamas candidacy and remain one of the Democratic Partys most loyal constituencies.
Pelosi joined Gutierrez during a recent stop in California, and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, was scheduled to co-headline an event with Gutierrez in San Jose this past weekend.
Honda said Friday that his caucus had written to the White House asking for a meeting on the issue with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Were in this mix also, and we want to be counted, Honda said.
Honda and the Hispanic groups argue that reform is an economic winner but acknowledge that that argument is more difficult to make when people are losing their jobs.
Certainly when the economy is good and people have jobs, they tend to be more generous, he said.