Immigration reform a hot topic again


WASHINGTON - News flash: Barack Obama and John McCain share an identical position on a matter of intense interest to voters -immigration - that is a symbol of Washington's failure to solve the nation's problems.

Does that mean something will finally get done about immigration when the new president takes over? Surprisingly, perhaps, the answer appears to be "No." And that might raise questions about exactly how much change the next president will deliver.

At the moment, Obama and McCain are intensifying their efforts to gain support from Latinos, whose votes have the power to decide the presidential election. Both candidates support a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law, an issue that remains stalemated at the national level.

Chants of "Si, se puede (yes, we can)" greeted Obama's pledge here the other day, to representatives of the nation's oldest Hispanic organization, that he'd "bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows" and "avoid creating second-class servants in our midst."

When McCain promoted a plan to give millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, it nearly cost him the Republican nomination. His rhetoric is more muted now. But he remains dedicated to dealing "practically and humanely" with those who are here illegally, he told the same Hispanic audience that Obama addressed.

The next round in their duel for Hispanic votes will come in separate speeches to the National Council of La Raza, which calls itself the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, at its current convention in San Diego.

By itself, having a supporter of immigration reform in the White House means little. A weakened President Bush was no match for grass-roots activists, whipped up by conservative talk radio, who blocked the attempt to push immigration reform through Congress in his second term.

According to those who track the issue, the key to breaking the stalemate is early action in the next president's tenure, when his influence will be greatest.

If Washington "is to take serious steps to resolve the current impasse, it is widely thought that the new president will have to move swiftly and creatively in the honeymoon period," David A. Martin, former general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, concluded in an analysis for the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Obama says he'd make immigration "a top priority in my first year as president" and finish the job "by the end of my first term." McCain says he'll make another run at reform once he's proved that the borders are secure.

But outside analysts say odds of action in 2009 have dimmed. For many voters, dealing with a faltering economy is far more important than fixing immigration.

"The next president will be called upon to focus early and intensely on the problems of the economy and the associated problems of energy and perhaps health care," said Bill Galston, a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, now at the Brookings Institution. "Whether there would be space in the legislative agenda early on for an all-out assault on the immigration problems strikes me as a dicey proposition at best."

Like others, Galston believes that, at some point, the next president - whether it is Obama or McCain - will make "a serious run at immigration reform. There are all sorts of forces dissatisfied with the status quo."

Logic might argue that a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president would have a better chance of getting something done. But logic does not always explain how things work inside the Beltway.

Mark Krikorian, author of The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal, points out that some of the Democrats who replaced Republicans in the 2006 election opposed the immigration measure co-sponsored by McCain and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. It is too early to know how the Class of '08 will come down on the issue, but the "anti" forces that successfully blocked action last year will be back to pressure Congress, no matter who's in charge.

Krikorian is no admirer of McCain - he's called him "weaselly" and "terrible on immigration"- but thinks the Republican may be more committed to reform than Obama.

For McCain, the fight "is now personal," he says. "He wants revenge on the Republican Party for having stopped him last year, so he's much more likely to expend political capital when the going gets rough in Congress."

A President Obama, he adds, might not fight as hard for reform but would be less likely than McCain to put hard-liners into top border and immigration enforcement positions at the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice.

Immigration, a hot topic in the primaries, especially for Republicans, wasn't expected to be part of the general election debate, since the candidates agree on the issue. But that appears to be changing.

Obama, in his speech to the Hispanic audience in Washington, accused McCain of abandoning his "courageous stance" on immigration when it became politically unpopular. The attack on his reputation may have gotten under McCain's skin.

"McCain ... considers that kind of charge an attack on his honor that he has to defend," Krikorian says.

As if on cue, the McCain campaign is airing a new ad this weekend in three swing states where Hispanics could hold the balance of power -Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. It features footage of McCain defending his immigration stance during a Republican primary debate.

In the ad, McCain praises the patriotism of Hispanic members of the armed services and points out that even those who are in this country illegally are "God's children. They must come into our country legally, but they have enriched our culture and our nation as every generation of immigrants before them."


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