Immigration: White House Likely to Disappoint

Washington Matters

Immigration: White House Likely to Disappoint

The stage was set for a high profile White House meeting on immigration next week, but on June 12, the White House announced an indefinite postponement of the meeting. Officials insist the meeting will come soon and that President Obama will live up to his pledge to do something on immigration this year. But the postponement is another sign that while Obama will get started on the issue this year, he won't get far.

It's not for lack of desire on the part of Obama and most Democrats in Congress. Several Republicans are also in favor of comprehensive overhaul, as is the business community, which needs a steady flow of workers. And of course, hard working Hispanics - legal and illegal - want help and advocacy.

But there's just no way immigration reform can get done this year. The issue is too complicated and the legislative calendar is so crowded with health care, climate change, food safety, the Sotomayor confirmation and, of course, the annual budget bills, that getting anywhere close to completing a bill on immigration is unrealistic.

Yes, there'll be plenty of hearings with the requisite sound bytes for the TV cameras and talk radio. And there'll be plenty of legislation introduced to appease constituents, financial backers and potential voters. But in the end, there won't be any final action in 2009.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is still holding out hope officially, but a close reading of his public statements shows that he's conceding the obvious. "I want it this year if possible," he said recently. You don't need a lot of experience following Congress to read that as acknowledgment that the odds are stacked against any real action in 2009.

The problem is that getting anything done in 2010 will be tough, too. There'll be only a narrow window before election politics get in the way to push off a deal until 2011.

Unless...  the election itself serves as a catalyst. Republicans know they need to win back a decent share of the Hispanic vote. To do that, they'll need to show some give on immigration. It's also a way to help their business allies. Problem is that some conservative Republicans are dead set against the main demand of Hispanics -- that the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. be given some way to pay a penalty for being illegal and then go on to earn legal status.

Reid addressed that specifically, saying federal legislation should allow illegals to pay fines and back taxes, learn English, stay out of legal trouble and get in the back of the immigration line before being administered an oath of citizenship. Opponents insist that such an approach amounts to amnesty no matter how you try to sugar coat it. They won't accept it.


That may mean Obama and the Democrats can afford a little foot dragging on Hispanics because there are still so many Republicans who seem to be tone deaf on the immigration issue. The Sotomayor nomination fight could add to that. In an odd way, it may add to any delay on getting things moving in Washington on immigration. If Democrats feel they can count on the Hispanic vote no matter what, they'll feel less pressure to get immigration done soon. But they still aim to do it, even if it doesn't happen until 2011.