When President Barack Obama stands before Congress Tuesday and offers his vision for the country’s future, most expect him to mention controversial topics that include gun control, entitlement program changes and immigration reform.
But with bipartisan immigration reform ideas already circulating in the House and Senate -- a House subcommittee held a hearing on immigration last week and another is set for the Senate on Wednesday -- the president's State of the Union speech is unlikely to change the debate, or even post this week’s most significant mile marker on the road to immigration reform.
“I think inside the immigration reform community, we feel we already had our State of the Union, which was the president’s speech in Las Vegas,” Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates comprehensive immigration reform and played a role in pushing the Obama administration to implement a temporary relief program for young undocumented immigrants last year. “We feel like we are two or three weeks past the starting block.”
Some action on immigration reform seems inevitable, according to political analysts, immigration reform advocates and researchers who were contacted by The Huffington Post on Monday. Parties on both sides of the issue seemed prepared to compromise, Tramonte said.
“You would be hard-pressed to find a single elected official who has not, in the last year, uttered the words, ‘Our immigration system is broken,’” said Sylvia Manzano is a senior analyst with Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based independent polling firm that specializes in the opinions of Hispanic voters.
State legislators have passed a patchwork of laws in the last five years aimed at reducing illegal immigration. States also have created a legal means for the undocumented to obtain drivers' licenses and marriage licenses, and for resolving child custody disputes. Voters have made their expectations clear, said Manzano.
This month, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 56 percent of Americans favor immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. A Washington Post/ABC poll produced almost identical results. A full 55 percent said Congress should pass a new immigration policy that includes an actual path to citizenship.
A Public Policy Polling survey found similar opinions across a broad spectrum of voters. About 64 percent of voters said they think undocumented immigrants should be given a chance to apply for legal citizenship, compared with 27 percent who support deportation. The poll found that two-thirds of white voters and 44 percent of Republicans favor a path to citizenship.
“Voters really are ready to be done with this issue,” Manzano said.
Manzano said she expects Obama's speech and the Senate hearing the next day to quibble over the standard for declaring American borders under control, and over whether the legalization process for undocumented residents should come before or after border security. She said she doesn't expect Obama to mention specific legislation he would be unwilling to sign.
In Congress, some members seem interested in a conversation. Last week, Rep. Raúl Labrador, an Idaho Tea Party-friendly Republican and Puerto Rico-born immigration lawyer who now sits on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, told NPR that he did not know why people are even discussing a pathway to citizenship for estimated 11.1 million undocumented people living in the U.S.
“The people who came here illegally, knowingly, I don’t think they should have a path to citizenship. If you knowingly violated our law, you violated our sovereignty, I think we should normalize your status.... Not a green card, but a visa.... Some people are calling it a blue card or a red card. Just something that gives them the ability to be in the United States, to come out of the shadows, to work, to travel, to go back home to their home countries you know to visit family, all those things. I think we should treat them with dignity, but we should also be fair to the millions of people who are waiting in line that are trying to do it the right way.”
When asked if his position is shaped by political concerns about the way undocumented immigrants may vote if they become citizens, Labrador told NPR that he is far more concerned with the possibility that amnesty would encourage illegal immigration.
Jessica Vaughn director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a research institute that advocates limited migration and strict law enforcement, said she shares Labrador’s concerns. But she said she said she was surprised by Labrador's idea for a green-card alternative.
“In my view we shouldn’t be accepting immigrants that we are not willing to allow to become citizens,” Vaughn said. “It’s the kind of policy that makes us more like Saudi Arabia and Japan. It creates classes of residency and treats people like facets of production.”
Creating a second-class legal status “sails into uncharted waters,” and will put millions of American-born workers with limited education at a deep disadvantage in the labor market, Vaughn said. Unemployment among undocumented immigrants already is high.
Vaughn said that during last week’s House subcommittee hearing, other Republicans seemed to agree with Labrador. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Tea Party-friendly Republican from Florida, who will deliver the Republican rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union Speech Tuesday, has also, at times, questioned the wisdom of creating a path to citizenship or said he would support a long process.
“What lawmakers should be looking at is some of the smaller areas that they could target where there really is consensus rather than trying to bite off a massive immigration reform proposal,” Vaughn said. “I think there is a lot of agreement about expanded, even mandatory use of E-Verify, enforcement and compliance at the worksite.”
E-Verify is a federal database that aims to allow businesses to determine whether current employees and applicants are legally eligible to work in the U.S. The system has been criticized for inaccurate warnings about legal immigrants, including women who have changed their names.
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