Immigration Reform: A Top Second-Term Priority for Obama


In the midst of divisive political debates over gun control and tax-and-spending policies, the White House promised to keep a close eye on immigration reform. Just a week after being re-elected, President Barack Obama said he expects a bill to be introduced and acted upon in Congress soon after his inauguration on January 21. Then during a December 30 interview on Meet the Press, Obama noted, “Fixing our broken immigration system is a top priority.  I will introduce legislation in the first year to get that done.”

By pledging to offer an immigration bill, Obama has taken a step beyond where he stood in his first term, when he encouraged Congress to strike a deal but did not write his own legislation. Obama now considers immigration reform to be the second-term equivalent of his first-term push for health care reform. The current political climate supports this post fiscal-cliff agenda, but the White House and Congress must act fast before the momentum loses steam.

Political Clout of Latinos and Other Voters Who Support Immigration Reform

To reach out to the growing Latino population and avoid a repeat of the 2012 vote, more and more Republicans are beginning to soften their opposition to immigration reform. Many Democrats deem the 2012 election results as a mandate for broad immigration reform.

In the November election, Obama won 71% of Hispanic votes nationwide as well as the Latino-heavy battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico, which helped secure his second term.

Early in his campaign, Obama faced staunch criticism from the Hispanic media and immigrant advocates for failing to prioritize immigration reform in his first term and for increasing deportations to record levels.

Obama’s introduction of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in June 2012, however, led to renewed support from Latino voters. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney’s call for mandatory EVerify, “self-deportation,” and ending the DREAMer deferred action program hurt the Republican challenger’s popularity among Latino voters.

Immigration is a crucial and personal issue for Latino voters, of which 60% report that they “know somebody who is an undocumented immigrant.” Latinos generally support a comprehensive bill that offers a pathway for undocumented immigrants to become citizens or permanent residents of the U.S.

An overwhelming number of Asian Americans and younger Americans, who comprise a growing portion of the electorate, also support immigration reform with a path to citizenship. A huge percentage of these voters chose Obama in the 2012 election.

The share of the American electorate that opposes immigration reform mostly includes older, rural conservatives and other voting groups who are losing their political clout.

Shift from Piecemeal Reform to Comprehensive Reform

Back in September, at a Univision News forum, Obama described the lack of immigration reform as his “biggest failure.” Since the start of the Obama administration in 2008, Congress has not debated a broad immigration bill that would improve the nation’s broken immigration system or provide a path to citizenship or residency to the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Instead, Congress has focused on piecemeal types of reform that target certain segments of the immigrant population. One example includes the DREAM Act, which provides undocumented immigrants, who were brought into the U.S. when they were children, a pathway to citizenship by earning a college degree or serving in the military. Although various versions of the DREAM Act have been introduced and debated in Congress, none were enacted into law.

Following the November election, the Republican-led House passed the STEM Jobs Act, which would increase visas for foreign nationals who earn advanced degrees in the U.S. for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but eliminate the diversity lottery that grants 55,000 permanent resident visas to individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.

The Democrat-controlled Senate is expected to ignore the bill. The Obama administration officially opposed the bill, noting that it detracts from broader reform. In its statement of administration policy, the White House declared, “…the Administration does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the President’s long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform.”

Furthermore, anti-immigrant local laws have proven to be costly for states and their citizens. Arizona’s S.B. 1070, for instance, resulted in lost revenue, boycotts, and heavier financial burdens for the state. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down much of S.B. 1070, while upholding the “papers please” provision, a Latino Decisions/Center for American Progress Action Fund/America’s Voice poll showed that 79% of Latinos nationwide believed that Latinos who are legal immigrants or U.S.citizens “will get stopped or questioned by police.” Most Latinos fear that laws like S.B. 1070 target even those born and raised in the U.S.

Due to the limitations and costs associated with anti-immigrant state laws, proponents of immigration reform argue that the only reasonable option is a comprehensive bill at the federal level.

Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform note that piecemeal measures fail to address fundamental flaws in the existing immigration system. The fate of 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the U.S. continues to hang in the balance. The number of visas made available each year for both high-skilled and less-skilled workers has not increased to meet the growing demands of the U.S.economy. Families are separated for years or for indefinite periods due to harsh immigration laws and the massive backlog in immigrant visa processing.

The White House is calling for “a 21st-century immigration system that meets the Nation’s economic and security needs through common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform.” Obama seeks a broad bill that would attract and retain highly skilled immigrants, reunite families more quickly, create a pathway for undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship, as well as bolster border security and penalize employers for hiring undocumented workers.

Congressional Support for Immigration Reform 

The 113th Congress seems poised to take on comprehensive immigration reform. In early December, a bipartisan group of six senators met at the Capitol to discuss how to push a comprehensive bill through Congress. The Republicans included the newly elected junior senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, and longtime immigration reform advocates Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona. The Democrats were Charles E. Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. This was considered the first of many upcoming bipartisan talks on comprehensive immigration reform.

Latino leaders, in particular, plan to push for a broad bill that creates a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.  Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, recently announced he will join Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal.) on the House Judiciary Committee to help lead the charge for a comprehensive bill.

Rep. Gutierrez stated, “passing comprehensive immigration reform is my passion and my commitment to my constituents and immigrants all across our country…I felt I must be on the Judiciary Committee during this Congress to help the others on the Committee get immigration reform to the finish line.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) expressed optimism that Congress and the White House could reach an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform. “This issue has been around far too long,” Boehner said in a November interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC World News, “and while I believe it’s important for us to secure our borders and to enforce our laws, I think a comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”

The Road Ahead for Immigration Reform

According to White House aides, it will likely take about two months to create a bipartisan bill and then another few months for chambers to vote on it. Therefore, concrete actions are not expected to occur until early or mid-summer 2013.  Plus, many Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) still favor piecemeal approaches to tackling immigration issues.

In addition, humanitarian appeals are hardly enough to secure immigration reform. In the last comprehensive immigration reform that occurred in 1986, Republican congressional leaders gained their party and the president’s support by stressing that economic growth was essentially tied to immigration. Advocates will need to show how more immigration, not less, is key to the nation’s economic prosperity, including  job creation and higher incomes.

While immigration reform involves an arduous process, the White House’s pledge to make it a top second-term priority, overwhelming support from the electorate, and bipartisan efforts make it a strong possibility during Obama’s second term. Fulfilling his first term campaign mandate of health care reform, Obama now looks to take on comprehensive immigration reform to add to his legacy.


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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