Immigration overhaul now?

Immigrant advocates said Thursday that long-stalled efforts to legalize millions of illegal migrants, crack down on employers who hire them and win more family visas would be revived next year and could possibly succeed in early 2010 following sizable Democratic gains powered by record turnouts of Latino voters in the November election.

Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, a Washington-based immigrant advocacy organization, said that Democrats who favored a comprehensive reform approach beat Republicans advocating only border control and other enforcement measures in 20 of 22 congressional races in such battleground states as Colorado and New Mexico. Those results were in part driven by Latino voters, who doubled their turnout over 2000, supported President-elect Barack Obama over Republican nominee John McCain 67% to 31% and helped Democrats win, in addition to Colorado and New Mexico, other swing states such as Florida and Nevada, Sharry said.

“This is a defining issue among the fastest growing group of new voters in the country,” Sharry said of Latino support for immigration reform. “This is a huge priority.”

In a national teleconference Thursday, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), said Obama had asked him to relay that he remains committed to a comprehensive solution to repair the nation’s immigration system. Advocates said Obama’s Cabinet appointments were a promising sign that he was assembling a strong team to deliver on reform promises, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as secretary of Commerce, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of Homeland Security and, announced Thursday, Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) as secretary of Labor.


All three are strong supporters of comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

“It’s another indication that immigration reform is going to be a high priority for the incoming administration,” said David Mermin, a pollster with Lake Research Partners. Mermin said that the majority of Americans he surveyed for America’s Voice support a comprehensive solution that would secure the borders, crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and offer legalization to undocumented migrants who pay fines, learn English and meet other requirements.

But Ira Melman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based restrictionist organization, said its own polling by Zogby International showed that the majority of Americans are concerned that legalizing immigrants during the economic downturn would hurt U.S. workers.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult to sell this to the American people when the economy is generally in a state of collapse,” Melman said.

Sharry said the recession would probably affect the outlines of a reform package. To protect American workers, Sharry said, the package might not include an increase in temporary visas for either skilled or unskilled foreign workers, for which business has long lobbied. An exception would be made for temporary farm workers, he said.

Sharry also said the reform package would probably include greater emphasis on aggressive labor enforcement to target employers who simultaneously violate immigration and labor laws by hiring illegal workers into jobs with poor wages and working conditions.

In Los Angeles, immigrant advocates said they plan to launch an appeal to Obama to stop immigration raids on homes and work sites.

In the Chicago area, Gutierrez said, Roman Catholic and evangelical churches have begun mobilizing thousands of citizens to support immigration reform by publicizing the hardship they face waiting for loved ones to receive entry visas.

Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said advocates are excited at the prospect of finally bringing to fruition efforts that began with massive marches and have led to a new Congress and White House administration seemingly poised to pass immigration reform.

“We feel very confident that the strong showing of Latino voters in November will show [people] that we are serious about getting involved in the civic process,” he said.