By TYCHE HENDRICKS
San Francisco Chronicle
December 11, 2008
With unemployment rising, foreign workers are less welcome, say immigration restrictionists, who have vowed to oppose offering legal status to the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.
But as the presidential transition goes into high gear, Democratic political insiders still believe that immigration reform has a good chance. Until a comprehensive bill is introduced in Congress, Obama's pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, will play a key role in refocusing the way the government handles immigration.
"Clearly the economy is job No. 1 for the new administration," said Frank Sharry, director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group. "But we fully expect that by the end of year one, that they're going to take a hard run at immigration reform."
Others were not so sanguine. Yale Law School Professor Peter Schuck, an immigration expert, doubts lawmakers will take up the issue for a couple of years: "It's going to be on the back burner just because everything else is on the front burner. It's a very, very delicate political issue that nobody deals with with eagerness."
The weak economy -- the unemployment rate reached 6.7 percent in November, its highest level in 15 years -- combined with increased immigration enforcement, appears to be discouraging illegal immigrants from entering the country and impelling others to head home. Demographer Jeff Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center recently estimated that 11.9 million illegal immigrants are living in the United States now, down from an estimated 12.4 million a year earlier. The U.S. Border Patrol reported making 700,000 arrests over the past year, down from 1.1 million two years prior.
But the illegal immigration issue remains volatile, and the next Congress and new administration will have to decide what to do about the people in the United States without authorization and how to deter future illegal immigration.
Problems in the legal immigration system have festered for years. The agency granting permanent legal residence (the green card is the token) and citizenship has long been plagued by epic backlogs and dysfunctional computer networks. Major policy debates over appropriate levels of immigration and whether to prioritize family ties or economic contributions -- and high- or low-skilled workers -- remain unresolved after "comprehensive" immigration bills died in Congress in 2006 and 2007.
Obama supports allowing illegal immigrants to earn legal status, continuing tough border enforcement and establishing an electronic worker eligibility verification system. He has been largely silent, though, on whether to admit temporary foreign workers, as President Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., proposed, or to accommodate new workers by expanding the number of green cards, as some labor advocates prefer.
Obama's advisers and congressional leaders are talking about a bill that would include a strong, mandatory verification system to ensure employers are hiring legal workers, combined with a measure to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants and require them to register and pay taxes, said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and former immigration commissioner under President Bill Clinton.
Those who favor greater restrictions on immigration are adamant, however, in opposing both future visas and amnesty, or a path to legal resident status for illegal immigrants.
"The rule of law and not rewarding illegal behavior is a basic American concept," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., who heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus.
But Bilbray praised Obama for his support of employment eligibility verification and called it an area where Democrats and Republicans could work together.
The combination of toughening workplace enforcement through an electronic program known as E-Verify and barring legalization could force illegal immigrants to "self deport," restrictionists say.
"There are 6 million illegal aliens holding jobs in construction, services and manufacturing," said Roy Beck, director of Numbers USA, an immigration reduction organization. "If you have mandatory E-Verify ... and you make it impossible for illegal immigrants to keep those jobs, then you get 6 million jobs that have opened up for the country's 10 million unemployed workers."
Immigrant rights advocates counter that 12 million people, many of whom have deep ties here, including U.S.-born children, are not going to just disappear. Bringing illegal immigrants already working in the underground economy "out of the shadows" could have economic benefits for the country, some Obama advisers add.
Obama's choice of Napolitano may help straddle the political divide on immigration. If confirmed as secretary of homeland security, she will have wide-ranging responsibilities -- from preparing the country for hurricanes to preventing terrorist attacks. But she will also oversee the three major agencies that handle immigration.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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