Immigration Debate Still Simmers Amid Economic Crisis


Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, and his new administration face a multitude of extraordinary challenges that demand unified, nonpartisan solutions. The soaring unemployment rate, plummeting stock markets, mortgage crisis, and financial sector chaos make the current economic crisis the top concern for the Obama administration. The two unfinished wars are high priorities as well, with Obama promising to withdraw U.S. troops from the war in Iraq within 16 months and shift the emphasis to the Afghanistan conflict.

While the President and several legislators have vowed to make immigration a “top priority” immigration reform is on the backburner as the country focuses on cleaning up the economic mess and resolving the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Nevertheless, the immigration debate continues to simmer. Worksite raids and deportation of illegal immigrants are not sufficient to fix the broken immigration system and address the presence of an estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the United States. 

Critics argue that immigration reform is inappropriate during this economic downturn, when foreign workers are less welcome, and instead call for heightened border security and reduced immigration to protect American workers. Meanwhile, supporters of broad reform want Obama to address immigration early, noting that it is a top-tier issue that intersects with the economy, health care, education and other primary concerns.

“Comprehensive immigration reform is part of the solution, not the problem, with respect to our economic difficulties today,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

On the campaign trail, in a July 2008 speech at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) annual conference in San Diego, Obama vowed to tackle immigration reform and stated “it is time” to “finally bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.”

On Election Day, Latino voters nationwide chose Obama over John McCain by 67 percent to 31 percent, helping him win traditionally Republican states such as Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. Political experts noted that immigration reform was a deciding factor for Latino voters.

“Obama’s going to have people in one ear who say, ‘Wait wait, it’s too controversial,’” said Frank Sharry, executive director of pro-reform group, America’s Voice. “And in the other, people will be saying, ‘But this is why you got elected.’”  Despite two failed Congressional attempts at immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, Sharry said, “We are confident and very optimistic that there’s likely to be a big window of opportunity between September 2009 and March 2010.”

Key Immigration Issues Facing the Obama Administration

When Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, the Bush administration established several initiatives to secure the country’s borders and crack down on illegal immigration. Several of those efforts are now subject to either congressional reauthorization or action by federal courts. Obama also faces pressure to review several administrative rules aimed at reducing unauthorized employment and illegal immigration. The key immigration issues facing the Obama administration are as follows:

Employment Eligibility Verification. A proposed rule will require approximately 200,000 public and private federal government contractors and their 4 million employees to use E-Verify, an Internet-based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in partnership with the Social Security Administration to confirm the work eligibility of new hires. Most federal contractors already use E-Verify and several states, including Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi and Oklahoma, require all employers to use it. Business groups argue that the system is onerous and civil liberties groups say it is error-prone and will penalize legal workers. Obama has said that employers need to be more involved in verifying the legal status of their workers. He favors making E-Verify mandatory for all employers but wants it to include higher accuracy and privacy standards. 

Worksite raids and enforcement. During the Bush administration, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 40,000 people in 2008 and 36,000 in 2007 through worksite raids and investigations targeting immigrant fugitives. Immigrant-rights groups say the raids have disproportionately hurt workers rather than abusive employers. While Obama has condemned the human toll of the raids, he has warned that he would not tolerate employers’ use of undocumented immigrants for profit. Although Obama will face pressure from immigrant advocates, worksite enforcement is expected to continue under his administration as he seeks to remove incentives to enter the country illegally.

Border security: While Obama believes border security is “only one side of the equation,” he supported the September 2006 bill authorizing the construction of a 700-mile border fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He wants additional personnel, infrastructure and technology on the border and at U.S. ports of entry.

Earned legalization: Obama has said, “For the millions living here illegally but otherwise playing by the rules, we must encourage them to come out of hiding and get right with the law.” He supports legalization of otherwise law-abiding undocumented workers if they pay a fine and back taxes, learn English, and then go “to the back of the line” to apply for citizenship. 

Immigration reform. The Obama administration wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform to fix the broken system. Obama supported the 2007 comprehensive bill that would have established a “guest-worker” program, provided a path to citizenship for the majority of undocumented immigrants, emphasized worker skills for visas instead of family ties, and enhanced border security. The bill did not come up for a vote, but Obama voted for a similar bill in 2006.

While tackling broad immigration reform might not be possible in the early part of his first term, Obama is expected to make several key decisions on immigration issues during his first few months in office. 

“We are not forgetting about our promise with regard to the immigrant community,” Melody Barnes, Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, stated recently. “We will start making down payments on that agenda,” Barnes added.


Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for an individual case or situation. The information is intended to be general and should not be relied upon for any specific situation. For legal advice, consult an attorney experienced in immigration law.


About Igbanugo Partners International Law Firm

Igbanugo Partners Int'l Law Firm is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It focuses on (1) U.S. immigration law and (2) international trade law in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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