WASHINGTON – With the health care battle still unfinished, the Obama administration has been laying plans to take up an issue that could prove even more divisive – a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
Senior White House aides privately have assured Latino activists that the president will back legislation next year to provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented workers now living in the United States.
In a recent conference call with proponents, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, political director Patrick Gaspard and others delivered the message that the White House was committed to seeing a substantial immigration bill pass and wanted to make sure allies were prepared for the fight.
In addition to the citizenship provision, the emerging plan will stress efforts to secure U.S. borders against those trying to cross illegally. But that two-track approach was rejected repeatedly in the past by Republicans and other critics who insist a border crackdown must demonstrate its effectiveness before any action on citizenship is considered.
No matter what the political environment, immigration is a tough sell, said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
“We know from a lot of experience that immigration reform has been and can be a very polarizing issue. There are heated differences about whether there ought to be some kind of pathway to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally,” he said.
“And my sense from the public opinion research is people care more about vindicating their position than they do about getting the issue solved.”
Even so, the White House apparently has decided to press ahead.
In an effort to enlist the kind of business support that helped drive its health care initiative, for example, administration officials have reached out to the National Restaurant Association, which represents an industry that employs thousands of immigrants. Earlier this year, the new head of the association, Dawn Sweeney, met with Cecilia Munoz, a White House aide involved in the issue, and expressed interest in cooperating.
“It’s an extremely important issue for our members,” said Sweeney, whose group could exert grass-roots pressure on lawmakers.
As a candidate, Obama vowed to take up immigration during his first year in office. That deadline will come and go. Further delay could anger Latino voters, who came out in force for the president and congressional Democrats in 2008.
“The bulk of the people needing immigration reform are Latino,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz. “There’s a level of disenchantment about where we’re going. … And if you don’t give the Latino community a reason to participate (in the elections) you weaken your base even more.”
For an immigration bill to have a realistic shot of passing next year, political analysts said, the particulars would have to be agreed upon by the spring. Delay would increase the likelihood of the issue being derailed by the November elections.
An immigration bill was introduced in the House earlier in the month, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who chairs a subcommittee on immigration, is heading the effort to cobble together a bipartisan coalition in the Senate.
But Democrats may not have a lock on one prominent Republican who has worked in the past to revamp the immigration system: Arizona Sen. John McCain.
McCain backed George W. Bush’s failed attempt to overhaul immigration in his second term. But he has not committed to supporting the Obama bill, saying he worried the president would not endorse a temporary guest-worker program.