Obama launches gradual effort toward amnesty for illegal immigrants

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama began pushing Wednesday for a critical move toward a Democrat-boosting immigration amnesty, declaring that an increased Latino “sense of empowerment and civic participation … is going to be powerful and good for the country.”

“I do think that there should be a pathway for legal status for those who are living in this country,” he said during the post-election press conference in the East Room of the White House.

Previous Washington efforts to provide amnesty to illegal immigrants have failed amid bipartisan push-back from voters, however, even when the economy was growing and unemployment was low.

Illegal immigrants, especially Latinos, tend to support liberal lawmakers’ entitlement programs and to pull their relatives and ethnic peers towards the Democratic Party. For example, Obama won almost 70 percent of the growing Latino vote in the 2012 election, partly because of his Obamacare health-sector regulation, but also because of support for some form of legal amnesty for Latino immigrants who entered the country unlawfully.

In contrast, the GOP candidate, Gov. Mitt Romney, did best with married Latinos, by winning almost 35 percent of their votes. He won only 20 percent of unmarried Latinos’ votes, according to an exit poll of 40,000 people conducted by Reuters and Ipsos.

Latinos comprised almost 8 percent of the electorate, and split their vote roughly 3-to-1 in favor of Democratic Party candidates, according to the poll.

In contrast, white voters’ share of the electorate was 76 percent, according to Ipsos. Romney won almost 60 percent of the white vote, despite evidence of lower-than-expected support among that group in Midwestern states.

To advance his proposed amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, Obama today offered to mollify public concerns and package it with benefits sought by politically powerful lobbies. (RELATED: Obama to Republicans on Benghazi: ‘Go after me’)

He acknowledged public concerns about unemployment and a renewed wave of illegal immigrants by promising border controls and hiring regulations.

A deal should “include a continuation of the strong border security measures that we’ve taken … [and] serious penalties for companies that are purposely hiring undocumented workers and [take] advantage of them” by paying them lower than normal wages,” Obama said.

That’s a subtle handshake for labor unions, some of which favor amnesty; others worry that immigrant workers will drive down their members’ wages.

Border controls, however, do not effect the many illegal immigrants who overstay short-term visas. Many illegals also take off-the-books employment from friends and family members, effectively making themselves invisible to America’s workplace laws and regulations.

To head off concern from voters worried about increased diversity, Obama also said that the amnesty should be given to people not “engaged in criminal activity … [who] pay back taxes … [and] learn English.”

Previous legislative proposals have simply required illegals to enroll in English classes, and have relied upon cursory background interviews that did not uncover previous criminal activity.

The president also sought to rally support from the nation’s agricultural and high-tech sectors.

Farmers hire many low-skilled but hard-working illegal-immigrant migrants, saving them from having to invest in U.S.-made crop-picking machines.

Many companies in the high-tech sector want more leeway to import both cheap and skilled labor. Those workers, including experts from India and China, often work longer hours for less money than similarly trained U.S. engineers.

“I am a believer that if you’ve got a Ph.D. in physics, or computer science who wants to stay here … we shouldn’t make it harder for them to stay here,” Obama said.

Another influential group are younger illegal immigrants, dubbed “dreamers.” Their cause has been championed by progressives, and by many media outlets, who showcase their young, educated and union-backed advocates. (RELATED: Hispanic group demands national amnesty for 11 million illegaimmil)

Under a policy announced in the White House Rose Garden in June, the Obama administration is granting up to 1.25 million of these younger illegal immigrants two-year work permits, even though 23 million legal American residents are unemployed or underemployed.

“The first step that we’ve taken administratively dealing with the DREAM Act kids is very important as well. … They shouldn’t be under the cloud of deportation [and] we should give them every opportunity to earn their citizenship,” Obama said.

Over the next few years, the number of people eligible for that assistance will rise to 1.76 million, of which only 40,000 — or 4.5 percent — have graduated from two-year or four-year college, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which favors amnesty.

Eight percent are enrolled in two-year or four-year colleges, 22 percent have four years of high school and 20 percent dropped out of high school, according to that organization’s analysis. The remaining 45 percent are younger than 19.

Obama also seemed to praise some GOP leaders Wednesday, including Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for supporting amnesty in some form.

The election should cause “reflection on the part of Republicans about their position on immigration reform [and] I think we’re starting to see that already,” the president said.

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