Immigrant Advocates Turn Up Heat

Posted March 9, 2010 at 6:32pm

With the onus now on Congress to finish health care reform, President Barack Obama is turning his attention to a key constituency whose complaints about being ignored have reached a fever pitch: immigration reform advocates.

Between the yearlong slog on health care and a spike in Democratic anxiety after the GOP upset in the election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), proponents of immigration reform say Obama has failed to deliver on a campaign promise to advance their issue. The final straw for many was the scant reference to reform in his State of the Union address.

“That’s when the grass-roots groups went from frustrated to angry,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national immigrant advocacy organization.

Grass-roots immigration groups complained Monday at a press conference that Obama was failing to lead on the issue, noting that deportations have increased by more than 60 percent since he took office. On March 21, groups including the AFL-CIO and the Center for American Progress are sponsoring a march in Washington, D.C., demanding action on immigration reform.

“We thought he would bring change. We’ve gotten no change on deportation and no discernible movement in his first year,” Sharry said. He said Obama needs to do one of two things to reaffirm his commitment to the issue: press for immigration reform legislation that can pass in the near term or use his executive authority to stop the deportation of illegal immigrants.

The White House is scrambling to extend an olive branch by holding two key meetings on Thursday. Obama will meet with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to discuss their efforts to advance a bipartisan immigration reform bill, and, separately, senior administration officials will meet with grass-roots immigration groups to hear their concerns.

Schumer and Graham, who have been working together for months on a yet-to-be-unveiled proposal, are making identification provisions a key component of their bill. These involve the creation of a controversial national biometric identification card that would be required for all American workers. The IDs would be embedded with information such as fingerprints to tie the card to the worker.

Graham called the provision “a confidence-building measure” aimed at sparking debate in the Senate and demonstrating to the public that they are serious about advancing key reforms.

“We’ve got to convince the American people that we are going to secure our borders,” Graham said. “If we do that one thing, I think it would do a lot to solve the problem.”

But so far, Graham is the only Republican actively negotiating with Democrats on immigration reform. And even he acknowledged that the ID card provision is “a new idea” and he doesn’t know “how it’s going to play out” among Democrats and Republicans alike.

Schumer, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, stayed mum on the duo’s plan and maintained that he favors a comprehensive approach.

“Preserving consensus support for bipartisan immigration reform depends on taking it up as a comprehensive bill, and not breaking it up into pieces,” said Schumer, who is also Senate Democratic Conference chairman.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the lone Senate member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, urged his colleagues not to make biometric IDs a centerpiece of reform.

“Biometric is not reform. It’s part of reform,” Menendez said.

Others dismissed the idea that there is enough time to bring a bill to the floor given that midterm elections are around the corner.

“I love Schumer. Schumer’s a bright guy. But I don’t think he has any illusions about getting it done this year,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said. He said the Schumer-Graham proposal is really just an effort to “get the immigrant community off their backs. There’s a lot of politics being played, and I don’t like it.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), ranking member of the immigration subcommittee, signaled interest in passing legislation but said Obama will have to get involved for it to move this year.

“There isn’t a bill,” said Cornyn, who met last week with Schumer to discuss immigration reform. “I told Sen. Schumer I’d like to work with him and find common ground.”

Cornyn also took a shot at Obama for failing to live up to his pledge to deliver immigration reform in his first year in office.

“More than a year later, it continues sliding down his priority list behind health care, climate change and adding trillions to the national debt over the next decade. If we are going to truly reform our immigration system, it’s time for President Obama to do that which the people elected him to do: lead,” Cornyn said.

White House aides maintained that Obama has been only temporarily sidelined on immigration reform as health care has dominated both his and Congress’ domestic agenda.

“The president’s commitment to fixing our broken immigration system remains unwavering,” said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.

Shapiro wouldn’t give a timeline on when Obama wants to see immigration reform enacted. But he outlined the pieces that Obama wants in a final bill: tougher border enforcement, a crackdown on employers who exploit undocumented workers and a path to legalization for illegal immigrants.

“They should have to register, pay a penalty for breaking the law and meet other obligations of legal immigrants such as learning English and paying taxes, or leave the country,” Shapiro said.

The House is staying out of the issue as the Senate figures out what it can pass. Over the last year, House Democrats have grown weary of taking tough votes on bills that later languish in the Senate.

House Democratic leaders are “not really” coordinating with the Senate on its immigration plan because “we always knew the Senate had to decide what they could do first,” a senior Democratic House aide said.