Latest on Immigration

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Audrey Singer, Senior Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, discusses the recent push by Democratic Senators to urge President Obama to honor the DREAM Act, and other recent news on immigration reform.

In 2008, the newly-elected President Obama rode into office on a wave of promises, among them comprehensive immigration reform. A year later, an effort at just such a measure failed. Last winter the White House made another attempt at comprehensive reform. The Dream Act, which would have given amnesty to children of undocumented immigrants attending school, was killed by a Republican filibuster during last winter’s lame duck session of Congress.

In the vacuum left by the legislative collapse, states have initiated a flurry of new immigration legislation. Some, like Arizona's infamous SB1070, are decidedly unfriendly towards immigrants. Other states are taking a different approach. Maryland's state legislature recently passed its own state-wide version of the DREAM Act, offering in-state tuition to children who have been living in Maryland for more than three years, as long as they attended secondary school within the state. 

Yet the White House may be signaling that the federal-level effort isn't over yet. Tuesday, President Obama invited a mix of business, political and law enforcement leaders and advocates to the White House to talk about immigration reform. New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, California former-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka were among those invited.

DREAM Act still in play

Even the DREAM Act itself appears to possibly still be on the table — just last week 22 Democratic Senators, including New York’s Kirstin Gillibrand, sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to take executive action on the DREAM Act. As the president turns towards reelection, there can be no doubt that a political calculus is at work in these recent moves. Obama has publicly called the failure to pass the DREAM Act his “biggest disappointment”.

Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on issues of immigration, explained that the Senators have reason to believe that executive action on the Act could be a viable option. The vote last December was very close, with the House voting in favor and the Senate nearly doing the same. With five Democratic Senators abstaining, the bill only lost by five votes. 

We’ve been at a point where there’s a need for immigration reform, in all directions on immigration policy, both in terms of enforcement issues, in terms of admissions policies, and also there is pressure for legalizing immigrants in this country. The DREAM Act is one of those bills that promise a lot, in terms of bringing in the people who are most likely to succeed in this country — the children of immigrants, who have lived most of their lives here, and who are being blocked from opportunities.

During a town hall with Univision, the President rejected the idea of intervening on specific deportation cases. Singer said that policy, too, may be changing now for the White House, though she predicts a case-by-case approach would be "difficult, costly, and not very timely.”

Maryland: A testing ground for DREAM 

If the president does try to revive a federal DREAM Act approach, Maryland might prove instructive as a template. Maryland has a large, diverse and urban immigrant population. Yet even there the legislation faced some opposition.

Maryland is in a unique position, because it is one of the few states that have actually moved in the direction of providing in-state tuition. Some other states have repealed certain laws in the past that did the same kind of thing. But this is not coming without conflict, in Maryland, both among those legislatures involved and the public. This is a public policy decision that reached out to immigrant children and says ‘you’re part of us, you’ve lived here, we want to invest in you and we see a future in you.’

Arizona has spawned imitators  

While Arizona passed SB1070 nearly a year ago, a ruling last week did away with some of the most unpopular measures. The federal government brought suit against Arizona on some aspects of the law, such as the right of police to stop and detain anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally. The federal government argued that this would create a problem of bias. The court found in favor of the federal government and halted implementation of those aspects of the law. Singer said despite Arizona losing in court, similar legislation has been popping up in other states.

It was somewhat of a blow to Arizona, and a victory for the Obama administration. But that has not stopped other states from jumping in on Arizona–type laws.

Immigrant waiting game

One of the major problems under the current system is the enormous waiting period faced by many immigrants who want to come into the United States legally. Singer said the waiting time is due to a huge backlog of immigrants waiting for visas. The issue is particularly problematic in countries with a high number of people trying to enter the United States. One of the things that slow down the process is the cap that the United States imposes on the number of immigrants allowed to enter from any certain country. The process is then further slowed by administrative backlogs of paperwork "that can clog the system and delay any person’s application along the way.”

White House assesses timing

Tuesday's meeting may have been a temperature-taking exercise. The president was looking to understand where the current immigration hot spots are, and to gauge support for comprehensive reform versus piece-meal legislation. It is interesting, noted Singer, that organized labor was in attendance. Labor unions are now in support of immigration reform, but that was not always the case. 

There was a shift, maybe about ten years ago, when unions looked at their membership, looked at their potential workers and realized a lot of new workers coming into their membership were immigrants. So it made a lot of sense for them, in terms of strengthening their labor pools, but also strengthening the benefits for immigrants.

She pointed out that unions share a common desire regarding immigration with almost everyone else, regardless of political affiliation.

I don’t think anybody in this country, whether they’re an immigrant, or a US resident, or a politician… I don’t think anybody is in favor of illegal immigration or illegal immigrants living in this country, and so part of the goal for some of these constituency groups is to legalize workers. 

While the failure of the president to keep his campaign promise on immigration reform is likely to pose a political problem in a 2012 campaign, Singer pointed out that former president George W. Bush also experienced the same political liability following his failure at reform.

Another element will be at play this coming election season as well: the Latino vote is growing, as is politician's awareness of Latino electoral power. Singer said the issue should make for an interesting campaign. 

There’s a big spot light on this group, and we’ll see how that plays out over the next couple of years.