Immigration Reform By Next Year?

Immigration reform continues to loom as a giant question mark over the legislative horizon, and prospects for passage of a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system remain clouded by the many other high-pressure issues that have interposed themselves on the legislative agenda – the economic downturn and its consequences, foreign policy crises, old and new, and above all, health care reform.

The new year holds out some potential for movement on immigration reform, but it is too early to tell whether some initial steps, currently in the works, will lead to real progress, and ultimately, to a new legal framework for immigration. At this writing, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) is scheduled to introduce his own Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill tomorrow – Tuesday, December 15 – according to a press release on his website. (See We will provide an overview of this new legislation after it is introduced.

Rep. Guitierrez’s new bill will provide a legislative vehicle for House members who seek an immigrant-friendly approach to reform, including a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants who are here without legal permission. We will be watching closely to see how many sponsors – influential or not – line up behind Rep. Guitierrez’s bill in the House, and whether a companion bill is introduced in the Senate. 
Last week, an article published in the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, raised the possibility that the Senate will at least debate an immigration bill next year. Roll Call reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who faces reelection in 2010, plans to keep immigration on the front burner next year, with possible debate, perhaps even some litmus-test votes, on an immigration reform bill. According to Roll Call, Senator Reid may use the immigration debate to rally his base of Hispanic voters in what is expected to be a bruising reelection battle. (See: Reid Sees Votes in Immigration, by John Stanton and Tory Newmyer, Roll Call, Dec 7, 2009.)

At this juncture, it is too early to tell whether Rep. Gutierrez’s new immigration reform bill – and Senator Reid’s best efforts to keep immigration reform a “live” issue in the 2010 mid-term elections – will bring real progress toward the deep structural overhaul that is so long overdue. Some of this certainly will depend on developments in other areas, and Roll Call questioned whether immigration reform would ever make it out from behind the shadows of health care reform, a pending supplemental war funding measure, regulatory reform of the financial industry, and a possible climate change bill.

None of this will matter if the White House is not prepared to make immigration reform a legislative priority in 2010, and the portents in this regard remain ambiguous. Administration officials have shown themselves ready to discuss the general baselines for immigration reform legislation, but they have yet to commit to specific legislative language and a timetable for passage.

Appearing on a CNN talk show on November 15, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the President, said that work on an immigration reform bill is still underway, and that a reform measure could become law as early as next year. According to a Reuters dispatch published in the Washington Post, Axelrod said an immigration reform bill could pave the way to citizenship for the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. “I think some good work is being done on both sides of the aisle to achieve that,” the Post quoted him as saying. (See White House Adviser Says Immigration Reform Advancing, Reuters, Washington Post, Nov 15, 2009.)

Congress and the administration will need to resolve the longstanding controversy about creating a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. Speaking to this issue, Axelrod was quoted as saying, “We have to hold accountable and responsible the 12 million people who are here illegally. And they have to pay a fine and a penalty, and have to meet certain requirements in order to get in line to earn citizenship,” the Post reported.

Axelrod’s remarks echoed those of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who spoke on November 13 at the Center for American Progress, telling the audience that immigration reform must bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows,” with what she termed a “tough and fair pathway to earned legal status,” a pathway which “will mandate that illegal immigrants meet a number of requirements – including registering, paying a fine, passing a criminal background check, fully paying all taxes, and learning English.” (See: Prepared Remarks by Secretary Napolitano on Immigration Reform, Nov 13, 2009.)

There is urgent need for comprehensive reform of our immigration system, Secretary Napolitano argued, because the current system is not working as it should. Moreover, she argued, DHS is finally prepared for comprehensive reform, unlike in 2007 when the last major attempt crumbled. Having reduced administrative backlogs, and improved enforcement both internally and at the borders, Napolitano said, DHS has paved the way for reform. With a new emphasis on vigorous investigation and enforcement, she argued, the DHS has shown enforcement advocates that it means business, and this will make them more likely to support comprehensive immigration reform when it comes before Congress.

It is worth noting that the Secretary’s prepared remarks give no clear indication of the timeline for passage of an immigration reform bill. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether immigration will remain on the legislative agenda for the coming year, with health care reform still topping the agenda, and mid-term elections drawing ever closer. Likewise unclear is precisely how Congress and the President ultimately will tackle this contentious issue. We are watching this closely, and will keep our readers posted.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.