Making This the Year of Immigration
President Obama has promised the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that he'll put comprehensive immigration reform on his priority list this year, and he'll make the same point when he meets with Latin American leaders, including the president of Mexico, later this week. But given all the other controversial issues on the president's plate, does he really want another big fight with conservative Republicans? Or more to the point, can he possibly win this one?
We've seen other big pushes for immigration reform that looked likely to pass, only to fall victim to strong-minded opponents who may be outnumbered but rarely outgunned. The most recent attempt came in 2007, when a seemingly unbeatable coalition threw its support behind a bill, a coalition that included President Bush, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Chamber of Commerce and some big labor unions. In the end, it fell victim to conservatives who vowed to make it a campaign issue (but only succeeded in forcing McCain to back away from his position and alienating Hispanic voters who turned out in droves to the Democrats). Polls consistently show that as many as two-thirds of Americans believe an overhaul of current law is needed, including a guest worker program and some path to legalization for illegal immigrants already in the U.S., albeit only after paying some kind of fine and going to the back of the line.
Now a new study adds some economic data to the argument. The analysis, by the Immigration Policy Center, the research arm of a group that favors comprehensive reform, crunched government data and concluded that giving legal status to undocumented workers would bring in about $66 billion in state and federal tax revenue over 10 years, while saving billions being spent in fruitless efforts to uncover illegals and deport them. It would also encourage illegals to become active spenders and investors, buying homes and cars and eventually saving through 401(k) plans.
Obama will undoubtedly keep his pledge to push for an overhaul this year, but he may not push too hard. For one thing, there's only so much Congress can handle at one time, and that limit has probably already been reached. It's also true that the recession has changed some of the dynamics. Employers pushed hard for an overhaul in 2007 because they needed more workers, and some unions gave it backing because illegals working off the books were bringing down wages. Now, with unemployment still growing, that pressure isn't as great, although the pendulum will swing back in time.
If immigration isn't finished this year, it'll probably get drowned out again by election year politics. But the debate could still push the issue forward, setting the stage for a compromise after the congressional elections.