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Chances are dim, but advocates will still push for immigration reform

Protesters in Phoenix demonstrated in mid-January against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his immigration enforcement.
Protesters in Phoenix demonstrated in mid-January against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his immigration enforcement. (Ross Franklin/associated Press)

Opponents of increased immigration say they see little political will in Congress to help illegal immigrants at a time when unemployment is near 10 percent.

"The chances that potentially vulnerable congressmen and senators will want to vote on legalizing illegal aliens is now zero," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks reduced immigration.

In a poll last month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the public rated the importance of immigration near the bottom of a list of issues.

Advocates say that, if the health-care debate is resolved quickly, an immigration bill could pass, putting the chance of success at 10 to 15 percent. Because the Senate tried and failed to pass similar legislation in 2006 and 2007, there are fewer details to hammer out and less guesswork over how senators might vote. Immigration may even benefit politically if health-care reform collapses, they said, because both parties may want to show voters they are serious about tackling a tough, long-festering domestic problem.

"They're going to have to show an accomplishment," said Angela M. Kelley, an immigration policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "There's not many branches left to hang from, and I think [immigration] is going to become low-hanging fruit."

Supporters said many Republicans remain uneasy that the party's support from Hispanics is eroding. Also, immigration advocates have retooled their message during the recession, saying a legalization program could lead to $1.5 trillion in economic growth over a decade, add billions in tax revenue as workers move into the open economy, and protect jobs and wages by stopping illegal hiring.

"We're not ready to stick a fork in it," Sharry said. "We think we still have a long shot, but a decent shot."

Still, the window of opportunity is growing narrow, as the Senate is also preparing a jobs bill and financial regulations package.

Don Stewart, spokesman for McConnell, said it is too soon to judge an immigration bill that has not been introduced. Still, Stewart noted of Democrats, "It hasn't been on the top of their talking points, and our side's first question is: 'How does this create jobs?' "

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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