Immigration reform advocates face the threat of another year without a bill

Chris Moody Contributor
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Despite strong rhetoric from the Obama administration in support of a federal immigration overhaul, time is running out for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill by the end of the year, leaving advocates for reform wondering when, if ever, a bill will make it to the House and Senate floors.

“There is definitely a lot of frustration in the Latino community,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners advocating immigration reform. “It’s really clear to everyone that it is not possible [this year], and I think that sets up for an angry letdown.”

Three years have passed since the Senate struck down a bipartisan bill that would have drastically changed federal immigration policy, and despite a major presidential speech two weeks ago on the issue, Congress does not appear poised to address it with midterm elections less than four months away.

With time-consuming issues piling up on the congressional docket, Congress is already stretched thin in what it can accomplish. Democrats are on the cusp of passing a financial regulatory overhaul bill, midterm elections are just around the corner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed to begin debating a massive energy bill before the August recess.

The debates over stimulus and healthcare have shown that neither party has much interest in passing legislation that both sides can champion, a fact immigration advocates cite as a major hindrance to achieving the comprehensive immigration reform they are calling for.

“The fact that Congress right now is very polarized makes it extremely difficult to gain consensus on anything,” said Gregory Chen, advocacy director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Immigration reform being one of the more divisive issues has made that even more difficult.”

While polls show that Americans support Arizona’s recent effort to crackdown on illegal immigration, a Pew Research Center survey this week showed that an overwhelming 63 percent of the country think it is “very important” that Congress passes a law that addresses immigration in the next year. But there are few indicators that they will act on immigration reform before the November elections, insiders say.

According to advocates of an immigration overhaul bill, the American people won’t take kindly to a Congress that fails to act on the issue.

“I don’t think it’s going to bode well for people who are currently in Congress to have yet another notch on their belt for problems they haven’t solved.” said Clarissa Martinez, immigration and national campaign manager for the National Council of La Raza. “The reaction from the whole country is not going to be a good one.”

In April, Illinois Democrat Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, a staunch supporter of immigration reform, threatened that members of Congress could pay for their unwillingness to act at the polls if they continued to push immigration reform to the wayside.

“We can stay home,” Gutierrez told The Hill newspaper. “We can say, ‘You know what? There is a third option: We can refuse to participate.’ ”

Gutierrez, who introduced his own comprehensive immigration reform bill in December, said he disagreed with the premise that Congress would not take up the issue this year.

“I think once we get past the Arizona GOP primary that sparked the most recent anti-immigration reform eruption, we will have a chance of getting some of the Republicans in the Senate to also come forward and work with Democrats to get a bill passed,” he said.

Regardless of the signs that point against a bill making it through Congress this year, immigration reform advocates say they will continue to push for a change in policy.

“We are not naïve to the fact that this is an uphill battle,” Martinez said. “But we believe that there is still an opportunity to do it and we’re definitely going to continue working on that front.”

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