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Immigration Reform Inching Up on the Agenda

As The New York Times reported in a front-page story today, President Obama is slowly coming around to saying he’s thinking that he’s probably going to do something about immigration reform at some point in the future, hopefully this year.

He might even talk publicly about it in May.

That’s as much political capital as the new administration seems willing to put behind the comprehensive immigration reform idea these days, given that it’s facing major push-back from Republicans and restrictionist immigration groups stoking the fears of many Americans that legalizing any of the 7 million or so undocumented immigrants already working here will take jobs away from lawful U.S. residents. At at time when the U.S. unemployment rate has reached 8.5 percent — the worst it’s been in decades — the restrictionist message holds some potency.

As Dave Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration said to me recently: “We’re concerned about economic justice for American workers. Especially now. Why should they be forced to compete with foreign workers who are here illegally — or foreign workers at all, for that matter? ”

Although it’s difficult to know how many people really feel that way, suffice it to say that this is a tough year to be arguing for legalization of up to 12 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States, even though there are strong economic reasons supporting legalization of undocumented immigrant workers, including the likely increase in wages and tax revenues.

On the other hand, Obama did win broad support from Latino voters during the 2008 presidential election, and has repeatedly promised in interviews with Spanish-language media and when addressing Latino organizations that he’ll make immigration reform a priority.

He’s now being pressured to make good on those promises.

Some advocates hope to chip away at the problem with legislation like the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, happily known as the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legalization for a small slice of the most sympathetic undocumented immigrants — the children of illegal aliens who’ve lived here at least 5 years, finished high school, are of “good moral character” and complete two years of college or military service. It’s hard to say no to that particular group, and even the AFL-CIO, which doesn’t always support the immigrant advocates’ agenda, says it’s on board with this one.

Then again, the bill did die last year in the Senate. But there are more Democrats to support it now, and it’s likely to have the backing of the White House: Obama supported it while campaigning, as well as similar legislation as a state legislator in Illinois.

Still, as Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center, put it to me recently when talking about the DREAM Act, no one really sees that as a sufficient solution.

“It’s a good bill, but it nowhere begins to speak to being a solution to a problem that clearly needs to be addressed,” she said. “The American public voted in the president and new Democratic class in Congress because they wanted a change that meant solving tougher problems. Democrats are going to quickly find there is nobody to blame anymore on this as the months pass, if it’s not solved. There’s no more George Bush in the White House. The people making decisions at [the Department of Homeland Security] are the ones that Obama has picked.”

Obama is likely to find himself pushed in all different directions on this one.

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