Released 23 November 2008  By BNA DAILY REPORT FOR EXECUTIVES
Comprehensive Immigration Law Not Likely Before 2011, but Other Changes Expected
Thursday, November 20, 2008
BNA DAILY REPORT FOR EXECUTIVES
Comprehensive immigration legislation is unlikely to pass before 2011, but changes in immigration policy are expected soon after President-elect Obama takes office, speakers said at a Nov. 19 forum sponsored by Cornell Law School.
Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the presidential election provided Obama with a "mandate to take action and make changes," including immigration reforms.
For the past eight years, the Bush administration has set out general principles for immigration legislation and waited for Congress to take action, Meissner said. An Obama administration will be different, she said.
Obama's administration will lead an immigration legislation effort by developing solutions and vetting ideas, Meissner said.
Due to the current state of the economy, when comprehensive legislation is adopted it is unlikely the bill will include increased levels of temporary worker visas, according to Meissner, Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigrant rights organization, and Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
According to the speakers, an immigration bill may be introduced in the fall of 2009, but if it does not pass it is extremely unlikely immigration will be addressed during the 2010 election year. At that point, comprehensive immigration legislation will likely be taken up again in 2011.
In the meantime, Obama is expected to set the tone of the immigration debate, curtail worksite enforcement raids, and step up the Labor Department's enforcement of worker protections.
Passage of Immigration Bill Expected in 2011.
There is a "less than 50-50 chance that comprehensive immigration reform will pass in the first two years of an Obama administration," Sharry said.
In late 2009, Congress will likely "take a hard look" at immigration, but Democrats "may get spooked" by Republicans running on a tough-on-immigration platform in 2010, he said.
However, Sharry predicted that there is a "better than 50-50 chance" that comprehensive immigration legislation will pass in 2011. There is "an imperative" on both sides of the aisle to pass immigration legislation before the next presidential election so that the issue is not center stage, he said.
Butterfield said she "holds out hope" that immigration legislation will pass in 2009, but that largely depends on whether Congress has time to address the issue after dealing with the "looming huge financial crisis" and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If immigration legislation does not pass in 2009, Butterfield said the immigrant vote in the midterm election of 2010 could prove critical. If the power of immigrant communities at the polls continues in the 2010 election, it could help push comprehensive immigration reform forward in 2011, she said.
Meissner was more pessimistic, stating that she is "on the fence" about whether comprehensive immigration legislation can pass in Obama's first term, but said she expects it to pass if Obama wins a second term.
Guestworker Programs Not Likely to Be Expanded.
Butterfield said she expects a comprehensive immigration bill to be "streamlined" because of the downturn in the economy. "Changes to temporary worker programs and the future flow of immigrants will probably be punted into the future," Butterfield said.
Instead, comprehensive legislation will likely include provisions regarding E-Verify, the federal government's voluntary, electronic employment verification program; agricultural workers; and some form of legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented aliens currently in the United States, she said.
Meissner agreed that changes to current guestworker programs and the future flow of legal immigrants will not likely be addressed in any upcoming comprehensive immigration bills.
Even with a higher unemployment rate among American citizens and legally authorized workers, there can still be a continued demand for guestworkers in certain industry sectors, Meissner said. This can be "difficult to explain" when trying to build a political coalition to support comprehensive immigration legislation, she said.
Because guestworker issues are unlikely to be included in comprehensive immigration legislation, businesses "won't be as enthusiastic" in their support, she predicted.
However, business groups may support comprehensive reform even without an expansion of current guestworker programs if the proposed legislation includes a path to citizenship for existing workers, Butterfield said. "Businesses want to see their existing workforce legalized" to remove the fear of worksite enforcement raids, she said.
Obama May Change Tone of Debate.
The new heads of the Department of Homeland Security and DOL will "take a hard look" at current tactics the agencies use to deter illegal immigration, Meissner said.
Under an Obama administration, DOL will likely be a "reinvigorated department," she noted. The department will likely step up enforcement of labor protections for workers, which in turn deters abusive practices by unscrupulous employers who often hire illegal workers.
In addition, Meissner said she expects changes in policy at all of the agencies within DHS and a "revisiting of DHS overall in terms of what the proper balance should be among key agency responsibilities."
There is a "huge grassroots demand" to change DHS's enforcement tactics by ceasing worksite enforcement raids, Sharry said.
While the administration will likely curtail worksite enforcement and other controversial immigration enforcement tactics, a public moratorium on raids is a "nonstarter" from a political standpoint because Democrats still need to "seem tough on enforcement," Butterfield said.
Even if DHS reviews the raid tactics employed under the Bush administration, it will take months to install new leadership at the agency and conduct reviews of current policies, Butterfield said. In addition, many immigration raids are driven by local law enforcement agencies, which may continue the practice, she said.
"Immigrant communities will still feel the brunt of worksite and other immigration raids for some time," she said.
In addition to re-envisioning the role of DHS, Meissner said Obama should and likely will change the tone of the overall immigration debate.
"We've become tolerant of a demonizing of immigrants that isn't acceptable," Meissner said. "Obama won't stand for that," and will likely set a new tone embracing the idea that "we are one people," she said.