Saturday, December 30, 2006

Advocates hope new Congress will reform immigration by Mike Madden (Ganett News Service)

WASHINGTON - Millions of immigrants marched from coast to coast demanding new rights. Small towns enforced their own statutes against undocumented residents. A fence may soon go up on the U.S.-Mexico border.

And by the end of 2006, Congress still hadn't changed one letter of U.S. immigration law.
The border practically exploded into politics this year, drawing attention from voters and lawmakers thousands of miles from the Southwest. An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live here already, and about half a million make it here every year, mostly from Mexico.

But for all the drama inside and outside of Washington around the issue, advocates for reforming immigration laws are again waiting to see if Congress - this time, controlled by Democrats - will be able to deliver after years of debate.

That could be more likely now. President Bush, Democratic leaders in the new Congress and a broad coalition of Latino civil rights groups, churches, labor unions and business organizations all support reforms that would make it easier for workers to come here legally and would allow most undocumented immigrants already here to get legal status.

House Republican leaders were the main obstacle to passing new immigration laws this year, refusing to negotiate with the Senate over the dramatically different bills the chambers passed. Instead, the House focused on beefing up border security without changing the underlying immigration system.

But November's elections saw several outspoken "enforcement first" candidates lose, despite their tough rhetoric, from GOP Rep. J.D. Hayworth in Arizona to GOP Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania.

"I think we've got a better opportunity to get this thing done than I think we've ever had," said Marshall Fitz, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which is pressing for reforms.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says he'll introduce legislation similar to the bipartisan bill the Senate passed in May as one of his top 10 priorities for the new Congress. That bill included a plan to offer millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who will chair the Judiciary Committee - which will write any immigration legislation - also listed immigration reform as a chief goal for the year.

"Immigration is something that's not easy," Reid said. "But it's necessary."

Both the White House and Congress may be looking for issues where Bush and Democrats agree in an effort to start the next session without too much partisan rancor. Some observers say that could bode well for immigration reform.

"The list of major policy initiatives that this president and this Congress can agree upon is very short, and I think immigration reform is at the top of that list," said John Gay, a lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association and co-director of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, made up of trade organizations for industries that depend on immigrant labor.

Still, the issue won't be at the top of the agenda for all lawmakers.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hasn't yet decided how or when to take up reform again, Democratic aides said. Many new House Democrats supported new border security restrictions on the campaign trail, which could complicate matters politically for Pelosi, even though lobbyists working on the issue believe a majority of the House would vote for reform.

But the stalemate this year taught advocates that they need to act fast, before election-year politics come into play, said Cecelia Munoz, vice president for advocacy at the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino civil rights group, Munoz hopes the House will take up a bill by spring in order for Congress to finish its work before 2008.

With the Bush administration already is ratcheting up border security and enforcement of laws against hiring illegal immigrants - the two biggest busts of undocumented workers in U.S. history occurred this year - some observers say border hardliners could win by default if Congress doesn't pass new laws soon.

The crackdowns are slowing the arrival of new immigrants, even though conservative critics say the administration isn't doing enough. Already, agriculture groups are complaining that new security measures are contributing to a labor shortage.

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