Obama floats ambitious immigration bill, stops short of simple ‘amnesty’ promise

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama will soon push for a massive change to U.S. immigration law that would provide a kind of conditional amnesty for roughly 11 million illegal immigrants, import more unskilled and skilled workers, and speed up visas for relatives of new arrivals.

But the White House argues that the ambitious legislation would penalize illegal immigrants seeking legal status.

Obama’s bill was sketched out in a Jan. 12 leak to The New York Times, and it won immediate plaudits from the National Council of La Raza, a major Hispanic lobby group.

The bill does not include provisions favored by immigration reformers, such as NumbersUSA — which wants to spur employment of American workers. That group’s legislative goals include a reduction in the flow of low-skilled workers, and a cutback in the number of “family reunification” green cards offered to relatives of new immigrants.

Ethnic lobbies and progressive advocates say they can win passage of the White House’s bill, partly because GOP leaders were shocked by Obama’s lopsided margin of victory among Hispanic voters in November.

Countering expected opposition, the White House said its bill would not grant amnesty to the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Instead, “the White House will argue that its solution for illegal immigrants is not an amnesty … because it would include fines, the payment of back taxes and other hurdles for illegal immigrants who would obtain legal status,” the Times reported.

“The president’s plan would also impose nationwide verification of legal status for all newly hired workers; add visas to relieve backlogs [of people waiting to immigrate] and allow highly skilled immigrants to stay; and create some form of guest-worker program to bring in low-wage immigrants in the future.”

But the bill’s future is threatened by a high unemployment level that has left 23 million Americans without full-time employment, and many others skeptical about the need for immigration. (RELATED ANALYSIS: In Obama’s economy, immigrants outpace native-born Americans)

A Gallup poll released Dec. 20 showed that only 2 percent of respondents believe immigration is “the most important problem facing this country.” The economy and unemployment, together, were cited as the most important issues by 40 percent of respondents.

In previous immigration debates in 2006 and 2007, intense public opposition pushed many legislators to hedge or reverse their initial support for immigration expansions.

Much of the public’s opposition was then based on worries about the impact of immigration on jobs and wages.

Since 1973, the after-inflation hourly wage paid to the bottom 20 percent of American workers has climbed by only 4 percent, to $33,426, according to a Jan. 12 New York Times article.

So-called “guest worker” programs are especially contentious, because they allow companies to keep wages low by importing low-wage workers when Americans decline to take low-paying jobs.

In 2007, for example, then-Senator Obama was part of a one-vote majority that amended a pending immigration bill with a five-year limit on a “guest worker” program. Obama’s vote came shortly after he had voted to expand the that program by allowing foreign workers to stay until they were removed by a court.

The amendment’s one-vote majority upset other deals among Senators and helped kill the overall bill.

This year some critics and supporters of additional immigration are skeptical that Obama will risk a big battle to push for his agenda.

Instead, he may be trying to generate added Hispanic support for the 2014 mid-term elections,

“The word that I’ve heard from many, is [that he will] submit a very, very liberal plan that most Republicans will not support, that most southern and moderate Democrats will not support,” Robert de Posada, former head of the GOP-affiliated Latino Coalition, told The Daily Caller in December. (RELATED: Obama promises new immigration plan but keeps endgame close to his vest)

When the bill fails, “they can announce once again that they tried [and that Latinos] need to rally in the next election,” said Posada, who supports a bill that would provide citizenship to illegals.

De Posada helped President George W. Bush win 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, during the housing boom.

His view, that an ambitious bill will be more difficult to pass, was echoed by administration officials cited in the Times article on Saturday.

“Obama and Senate Democrats will propose the changes in one comprehensive bill, the officials said, resisting efforts by some Republicans to break the overhaul into smaller pieces — separately addressing young illegal immigrants, migrant farmworkers or highly skilled foreigners — which might be easier for reluctant members of their party to accept,” the Times reported.

The article cited only one critic of the bill, Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey.

Gingrey said he opposed “amnesty of any kind,” and that he would “continue working to secure our borders and enforce existing immigration law.”

Critics say large-scale immigration of unskilled workers and their families increases unemployment and boosts public support for the Democrats’ big-government policies.

Instead, they’re calling for a series of modest reforms that would spur demand for U.S. workers, reduce employment and increase support for the GOP’s small-government policies.

‘The idea of a grand settlement to the immigration issue is a mistake … we need confidence-building measures between our bipartisan pro-amnesty elites, on the one hand, and the public, on the other,” said Mark Krikorian, the director of an immigration reform group, the Center for Immigration Studies.

A better option, he said, would be passage of a bill that provides a conditional amnesty for people brought in the country as children, in exchange for laws penalizing companies that hire illegals. That trade would “represent a real step forward but a small enough one that each side could judge the other’s subsequent performance and see if they want to continue,” he said.

GOP representatives, including Gingrey and Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, have pushed alternative approaches such as the STEM bill, which would boost immigration among job-creating, skilled professionals, while trimming immigration of low-skill workers.

In a November vote, however, Democrats opposed the STEM bill because it would end the so-called “Diversity Lottery,” which annually grants 55,000 visas to would-be immigrants regardless of skills.

The STEM bill was supported by high-tech companies in Silicon Valley.

Follow Neil on Twitter