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Bit by bit, Obama already nicking away at barriers for illegal immigrants

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, at 4:08 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, at 3:48 p.m.

— President Barack Obama will unveil his sweeping plan on immigration Tuesday 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 Tuesday on a special trip to Las Vegas. The White House called the Senate proposal a “big deal” because it embraces a path to citizenship.

“This is an important development,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “This is in keeping with the principles the president has been espousing for a long time, in keeping with bipartisan efforts in the past, and with the effort this president believes has to end in a law that he can sign.”

Regardless of the warm talk from some politicians about reaching an agreement, Obama’s and the Senate group’s bipartisan call for a path to citizenship will reignite an emotional debate over the rule of law and “amnesty,” a politically charged word with negative connotations among conservatives.

“We would be in a much better position to achieve immigration reform if the Obama administration had spent that last four years enforcing federal law rather than dismantling it,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Monday.

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 youth, 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.

Tovar, who recently received deferred action on deportation, remembers the multiple failed efforts to overhaul immigration law. The consequences included a wave of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment in local communities.

States such as Arizona, Alabama and Georgia implemented their own strong immigration laws geared toward encouraging undocumented immigrants to leave. Several more communities in Texas, Florida and North Carolina, among others, joined the 287(g) program. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nearly 60 local law enforcement agencies in 21 states operated the program.

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.”

Anticipation is growing at the Kansas City, Mo.-based Don Bosco Center, which offers immigrants and refugees free English classes. At the center, news of Obama’s policy changes for immigrant families has spread slowly from “cousin to cousin,” according to David Holsclaw, director of the English as a second language program.

Pedro Ramirez, the 24-year-old son of farm workers in Fresno, Calif., got a hug from his mom when he told her this month that he was granted deferred action and a work permit – and that his U.S.-born brother could one day sponsor the rest of the family to gain their residency status.

“I kind of sprung both surprises on both of them,” Ramirez said. “You wouldn’t believe how many families have mixed status.”

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.

“When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration," Smith, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the immigration subcommittee, said in a statement.

Most everyone agrees immigration reform is needed, according to Rosemary Jenks, director of government affairs for NumbersUSA, which advocates for greater enforcement. But the public is not ready for legislation that includes “meaningless enforcement measures,” she said.

It’s not just Obama’s policies and the Senate agreement that are effecting change for illegal immigrants.

Sharry of America’s Voice says the trend dates back to last summer, with the historic Supreme Court decision striking down much of Arizona’s controversial law.

The court upheld the “show me your papers” requirement mandating law enforcement officers to check the status of people stopped for various reasons who might appear to be in the U.S. illegally. But it threw out other provisions of the law, such as requiring immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers. The decision was followed by Obama granting deferred action to hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth.

In last fall’s election, 71 percent of Latinos voted for an incumbent president who championed comprehensive legislation.

More local changes have followed. Illinois passed a law that allows illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Lawmakers in Nevada and California are considering similar measures.

When Republicans in North Carolina put together a special committee on immigration, the expectation was they’d recommend state legislation along the lines of Arizona and Alabama.

But the special House panel disbanded abruptly last month without offering any recommendations other than calling for the federal government to do more.

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.

Smith writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Ordonez reported from Washington. Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com or dianesmith@star-telegram.com; Twitter: @francoordonez or @dianeasmith1

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