Immigration High on Obama's Priority List

Washington Matters

Immigration High on Obama's Priority List

It's not getting much attention -- not with more pressing economic and national security issues -- but President-elect Obama is quietly laying the groundwork for a big push later this year on a comprehensive immigration bill.

He's already designated two point persons -- his former opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and his new secretary of Homeland Security, soon-to-be-ex-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. It's a match made in heaven.

When Obama met with McCain last month, it wasn't just a courtesy call. The president-elect was reaching out and looking for issues on which the two former adversaries could work together. Immigration was high on the list. It didn't figure much in the campaign for the very reason it's ripe for cooperation; there's little daylight between the McCain and Obama positions. The two men agreed to work together on the measure, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was there, agreed to help.

By picking Janet Napolitano as his head of Homeland Security, which includes Customs and Immigration Enforcement, Obama was also picking someone ideally suited to help craft an immigration policy. As governor of a border state, she took a practical stand that won her allies in competing camps. She was the first to seek help in guarding the border from National Guard troops, but she has questioned the wisdom of building a border fence on the grounds that it's too costly and won't work well enough. When the Arizona legislature passed a bill imposing the toughest-in-the-nation sanctions on employers who hire illegal aliens, she came to the defense of the business community, which opposed the bill, and signed it only after fighting for some modifications. She knows the immigration problem as well as anyone in Washington -- probably better than anyone in Washington.


Why would Obama look for a fight on this issue when he has so many seemingly bigger fish to fry? First, it's a major problem that begs for a better answer than stirring up prejudice and denying businesses the workers they'll need when the economy recovers. Second, Obama owes something to Hispanics, many of whom are disappointed that one of their own, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, didn't get the secretary of State nod (he'll settle for Commerce.). Third, it's a way to do something that business wants (and unions don't), allowing Obama to show he's not all pro-labor and anti-business.

Obama, McCain and Napolitano will push for a bill that looks a lot like the one President Bush championed unsuccessfully -- including a large guest worker plan and some path to legal status for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

Passage won't come easy. While some of the loudest, most vociferous congressional voices are no longer in Washington (i.e., Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo), proponents must still contend with a vocal minority, egged on by popular broadcast personalities, namely Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs. But with a bigger Democratic majority in the House and a strong bipartisan push in the Senate, it just might happen in Obama's first year in office.