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

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; A03

As President Obama vows to refocus Democrats' attention on jobs and the economy, advocates for overhauling the nation's immigration laws say they are still gearing up for a battle in the Senate in coming weeks, despite fading hopes for victory.

Washington's drawn-out health-care debate badly damaged prospects for an immigration bill this winter. It ate up weeks of the Senate's time, sapped progressive lawmakers' energy and, most recently, stoked a populist backlash that cost Democrats the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the chamber's most prominent champion of liberal health-care and immigration policies.

With time running out before lawmakers want to start focusing on the November elections, "immigration is deader than a doornail," one veteran Senate lobbyist put it. Advocates' frustration peaked last week when Obama devoted a single sentence in his 71-minute State of the Union address to a topic he ranked as a top legislative priority last summer, after health care and an energy bill.

"We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system," Obama said, offering no specific remedy or timing, ". . . and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation."

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has introduced a House bill favored by immigrant groups, said there was "disillusionment" among advocates across the country.

"There's almost universal consensus that the president -- it was too little," Gutierrez said, noting that by contrast, Obama pledged in the speech to repeal the military's ban on service by openly gay people this year. "He was very weak on immigration, lackadaisical," Gutierrez added.

"I had very low expectations, but he [the president] surprised even me with how little he said," added Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. He and other advocates are pushing to legalize many of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, strengthen enforcement of immigration laws and provide a mechanism to control the flow of immigrant workers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has taken the lead in drafting a Senate bill, rushed to reassure immigrant advocates and Latino groups that they were still working with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to find Republican backers for a bipartisan bill, while shying away from setting a timetable.

"It's something we're committed to do, and we'll do it as soon as we can," Reid told reporters.

A White House official said Obama's mention of the issue implicitly made it part of his agenda for the year: "What he said in the speech was that we should move the process and legislation forward this year."

Nevertheless, backers say they will have to thread a needle to move a bill to the Senate floor by a springtime deadline, after which they fear midterm election politics will take hold.

Several stakeholders said a breakthrough is possible only if Schumer strikes a deal with at least two Republican cosponsors, Democrats hold firm and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants a bipartisan accomplishment to show voters this fall.

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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