WASHINGTON — With a re-election campaign looming, President Barack Obama is pushing Congress to overhaul the immigration system, but lawmakers seem to have little appetite to take on the issue.
In recent speeches at the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas, and the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Obama said his administration has followed through on demands to secure the border, and now it’s time for Congress to put revamping immigration back on the agenda and make something happen.
“Comprehensive immigration reform is not only an economic imperative or a security imperative, it is also a moral imperative,” Obama told the prayer breakfast.
But Republicans say any effort to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country or any effort that doesn’t address the inadequacies they see in border security is doomed to fail.
Although legislation has yet to be introduced, many lawmakers agree the most likely first step toward immigration legislation is a requirement that all businesses use E-Verify. The E-Verify program lets businesses know whether employees have the necessary papers to work in the U.S. Such legislation could give Democrats political cover by addressing immigration requirements that preclude tough crackdowns on immigrants, and give Republicans an opportunity to say they provided a new enforcement tool to stop illegal immigration.
The president’s recent push, which started in April with a White House meeting on immigration issues and other events involving Latino celebrities, prompted Senate Democrats this month to reintroduce the DREAM Act. The bill would give a path to legal status for law-abiding young people who were brought into the United States without documents as children and who either plan to attend college or join the military.
“Our immigration laws prevent thousands of young people from fully contributing to our nation’s future,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement announcing the bill he drafted. “These are honor roll students, star athletes, talented artists and valedictorians. These children are tomorrow’s doctors, nurses, teachers, firefighters, soldiers and senators, and we should give them the opportunity to reach their full potential.”
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., has introduced a similar bill in the House.
Republicans, who control the House, insist the DREAM Act will never pass.
“It’s amnesty for up to 2 million people,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has some jurisdiction over immigration legislation. “I just don’t see it when you are still talking about amnesty.” Smith said the bill rewards the undocumented parents and is “an open invitation to fraud.”
But GOP House members have pledged to introduce an E-Verify bill for employers.
Some Democrats have suggested a compromise bill incorporating elements of both DREAM and E-Verify, even as they acknowledge the prospects for such a deal are dim.
“We are at a stalemate, but I am willing to sit down and work through issues to accomplish something in the interest of the country,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. “But it takes two to do that.”
Smith said there is no room for compromise with any bill that includes a path to legalization.
The DREAM Act passed the House last year before falling five votes short in the Senate in December. While three Republicans supported it, five Democrats opposed it.
What support it had among Republicans has eroded as some face primary challenges from the right. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, dropped his support of the DREAM Act last year because he said Americans are more concerned with border security. And Indiana’s Sen. Richard Lugar backed away from the most recent version because the president’s speeches turned immigration into a “divisive election issue,” said his spokesman, Andy Fisher. Lugar is facing a Tea Party primary challenge.
Smith said the reintroduction of failed legislation doesn’t seem like a serious effort and chided Obama for focusing on the issue again in hopes of scoring campaign points with Hispanic voters.
Winning the Hispanic vote is thought to be critical in Obama’s bid for re-election. In 2008, Latinos made up more than 7 percent of voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and their numbers are greater in swing states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida.
The Obama administration has made a point of highlighting enforcement efforts, though they differ dramatically from those of former President George W. Bush’s administration.
The current administration has shied away from the high-profile immigration raids at businesses that routinely yielded large numbers of arrests of illegal workers. Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shifted strategies, focusing instead on audits of the documents employers must maintain that show their workers are eligible to work in the United States. The audits, officials have said, put the focus on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers.
Speaking in El Paso, Obama said his administration had done what Republicans in Congress have asked by adding Border Patrol agents, intelligence analysts and unmanned aerial vehicles.
“We’ve gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement,” Obama said from a national park not far from the violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. “All the stuff they’ve asked for, we’ve done.”