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Change in air as Obama lays out immigration plan today

Tue., Jan. 29, 2013, midnight

Several policy alterations already in place

FORT WORTH, Texas – President Barack Obama will unveil his sweeping plan on immigration today in the midst of a rapidly shifting political environment. It’s his most ambitious move yet on the emotionally divisive issue after making a series of smaller steps over the past year.

Obama first came into office on the heels of Washington’s failure to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Those failures in 2006 and 2007 led many cities and states to adopt their own regulations to drive out illegal immigrants.

But exit polls find that views are changing, and a growing Latino electorate has emerged as a powerful force.

The political landscape has shifted so much that even before this latest proposal, the White House has been able to quietly unveil several policy changes that undercut communities’ ability to enforce federal immigration laws and that allow more illegal immigrants to remain in the country. Meanwhile, states are taking steps to welcome illegal immigrants by, among other things, allowing them to drive.

“The tide is turning,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for comprehensive immigration legislation. “People sort of picked up on little pieces of it, but they’re not sure whether they believe it.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken notice. And both Democrats and Republicans see the debate as critical to their political futures: Obama sees immigration as a signature issue that he feels could help him define his legacy; Republicans see immigration as a way to appeal to Latinos and help pull the party out of the political wilderness.

On Monday, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators got ahead of the president’s announcement by presenting its own immigration plan, though it is similar to past proposals that have failed. The key elements include greater border security, a guest-worker program and beefed-up employer verification, and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. The plan is expected to closely align with one the president will unveil today on a special trip to Las Vegas. The White House called the Senate proposal a “big deal” because it embraces a path to citizenship.

But quietly, a series of administration policy changes in recent months already has begun to transform how illegal immigrants live, work and go to school in the United States.

In addition to last summer’s announcement to defer deportations and give work permits to hundreds of thousands of undocumented youths, the White House announced last month that it was going to make legal permanent residency easier for many illegal immigrants who are immediate relatives of American citizens.

The Department of Homeland Security also announced it will no longer scoop up undocumented immigrants arrested for minor offenses such as traffic tickets, and that it is phasing out a controversial but popular program, known as 287(g), which granted police and sheriff’s deputies the power to start the deportation process on arrested illegal immigrants.

Reaction around the country has been mixed. Many undocumented immigrants, like 25-year-old Sandra Tovar, of Forth Worth, are trying to be optimistic, but they also are wary.

On a recent evening, Tovar joined other advocates in strategy sessions at the Catholic Men’s Club in north Fort Worth, near the historic Stockyards, which is home to long-established Mexican-American families.

“There’s still that feeling of not knowing what is going to happen and being afraid,” she said at the club Thursday. “We know it can be everything or nothing.”

The White House appears to be testing the public’s temperament on immigration by rolling out changes that, just a few years ago, would have been more strongly opposed, said Susan Gonzalez Baker, director for the Center for Mexican American Studies at The University of Texas at Arlington.

“It allows the administration to implement some policies that demonstrate the world is not going to end if immigration reform includes benefits, not just walls and more enforcement,” she said.

The highest hurdle to any agreement will likely be in the House of Representatives. The Republican-controlled House has long been resistant to a comprehensive plan. Leaders on this issue, such as Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, a tea party-backed member and Puerto Rico native, have instead called for a more piecemeal approach.

Labrador on Monday questioned whether the Democrats wanted a political victory or a policy victory. Democrats can’t just “draw a line in the sand” and refuse to compromise and then blame Republicans if it fails, he said in an interview.

“We need a system that doesn’t just fix the problem for the 12 million people who might be here illegally, but that’s fair to the people who have been waiting in line for a long period of time and that’s fair to the American citizens who want our sovereignty protected,” said Labrador, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, criticized senators for promoting an “amnesty” plan that will only compound the problem by leading to more illegal immigration.


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