06/26/2009 11:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Time For The 'Heavy Lifting' To Begin

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Ian Millhiser

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At a bipartisan meeting with congressional lawmakers yesterday, President Obama pledged "that he would push for a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration system by early next year." "It's going to require some heavy lifting," Obama said. "It's going to require a victory of practicality and common sense and good policymaking over short-term politics. That's what I'm committed to doing as president." Before the meeting, which had been delayed twice, the New York Times reported that although they agreed with the need for comprehensive immigration reform, some lawmakers, such as Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), "refused to put their political capital at risk without some assurances that Mr. Obama will spend some of his own." The meeting at the White House appears to have put those concerns to rest. "I don't think he could have be[en] clearer today or more committed today that he wanted to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL), who had previously expressed frustration with Obama's commitment to the issue. "A lot of cynicism and a lot of doubt were left behind." According to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), Obama told the lawmakers that he was "ready to speak out publicly, ready to use whatever capital he had left to make sure immigration reform happens." Substantively, Obama announced at the meeting that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will lead a group of lawmakers on the issue from the House and Senate "to start systematically working through" what the Associated Press calls "the stickiest, most emotional questions."

COMPREHENSIVE REFORM CAN'T BE DELAYED: Acknowledging that "there is not by any means consensus across the table" about the particulars of immigration reform, Obama said he was encouraged that "after all the overheated rhetoric and the occasional demagoguery on all sides around this issue, we've got a responsible set of leaders sitting around the table who want to actively get something done and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now, but to start working on this thing right now." Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed with the sense of urgency. "We've got one more chance to do this," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), adding, "If we fail this time, no politician's going to take this up for a generation, and that'd be a shame for the country." "We've all shouted at each other on television enough. Now it's time to get down to work. I think the time politically is ripe," Weiner said. Earlier this month, when the Reform Immigration for America campaign was officially launched, Center for American Progress President and CEO John Podesta refuted "opponents of reform" who argue that "at a time when American workers are hurting, the best solution isn't reform -- but deportation." "This argument fails to recognize the critical role that immigrants play in economic growth," Podesta said. "We need solutions that restore the rule of law while aiding our economy by making taxpayers of all immigrants. So, to those opponents of reform we say this -- immigration reform and economic recovery are not at odds with each other, but rather go hand in hand."

PRINCIPLES FOR REFORM: Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress released a set of principles for immigration reform, which provide guidelines for an approach that "would require immigrants to register and become legal, pay taxes, learn English, and pass criminal background checks." Recognizing that "lasting solutions flow from policies that defend the bedrock American values of opportunity, equality, fairness, compassion, and a commitment to the common good," CAP argues that "five key principles for reform should guide the president and Congress." First, resolve the status of the undocumented, as it is "morally and economically unacceptable for the wealthiest nation on earth to have 12 million people living and functioning in an underground economy." Second, enhance legal immigration channels and labor mobility, so that employment-based immigration and family-based immigration complement each other and are "not pitted against one another in a zero-sum game." Third, any reforms must also protect American workers by safeguarding their ability to defend their rights, including the rights to change jobs freely and organize without fear and to earn a fair wage. Fourth, an inclusive American identity should be fostered by ensuring that newcomers have access to programs that "facilitate their integration into the nation's social and cultural fabric." Finally, smart enforcement policies and safeguards should be adopted, remembering that "a workable system would tolerate neither deliberate unlawful presence nor the violation of an individual's rights."

HARD WORK AHEAD: As President Obama noted, "comprehensive immigration reform is difficult" because it is such "a sensitive and politically volatile issue." Though the lawmakers in the meeting were "united by a common interest in solving the problem," as Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL) put it, points of tension did emerge. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), whom Obama praised by name in the meeting, "drew an early line in the sand" over the issue of a guest-worker program, saying he would not support any reform bill that does not contain a guest-worker measure. However, such a program is opposed by many labor unions, who have proposed that "an independent commission study labor market needs and decide how many immigrant workers should be allowed into the country." Ana Avendano, the Director of the Immigrant Worker Program at the AFL-CIO, pushed back against McCain's position, telling the Los Angeles Times that "just because McCain said no [on Thursday] doesn't mean we're not going to continue pushing policies that are good for working people in the United States." Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), chairman of a Senate committee on immigration, said that the tension over a guest-worker program is representative of the fact that "both parties, left and right, are going to have to give in some to get immigration reform."