President Obama restarted the immigration debate with his speech in El Paso, Texas, urging Congress to pass legislation that will comprehensively reform the U.S. immigration system. Though he faces significant hurdles to actually get anything done on the issue before his race to re-election in 2012, taking concrete steps forward could convince lawmakers and the electorate that Obama's effort is not simply a campaign ploy. Here are some things analysts say he can do without waiting on congressional action:
1. Ask Congress to pair up the DREAM Act with an E-Verify Act
Democrats in the House and Senate have re-introduced the DREAM Act, which would give a path to citizenship to children who were brought into the United States illegally, if they go to college or serve in the military. The act failed last year, but Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, an organization that advocates reducing the number of immigrants in the country, suggests the DREAM Act could be a valuable bargaining chip if paired with a law mandating E-Verify, a system that allows employers to determine employees' eligibility to work in the United States. Beck says such a pairing would "ensure that future parents aren't able to get jobs here and put their kids in that situation."
This idea may be gaining traction in Congress. An E-Verify law is already in the works in the House, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he is open to considering the combination.
2. Rally the public.
Some say Obama's biggest mistake in the healthcare debate was messaging: He didn't win buy-in because he didn't work to inform the public up front. "As a result, Sarah Palin was able to come in there and talk about death panels," says Andre Pineda, a political consultant to Democrats. He says Obama's current effort is the first step in "creating less space for someone to 'death panel' immigration."
The president has already started a series of what his administration calls "community conversations" with stakeholders from both parties and from various sectors—including leaders in business, labor, law enforcement, and faith—in an effort to get more people on board across the nation. According to Pineda, such a coalition, particularly if it involved the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, could more effectively convince Republican and Democrat lawmakers alike that they can vote for reform without risking their seats. It is vital, Pineda says, to ensure congressmen that "if they support immigration reform, they are not going to get tossed."
3. Stop deporting immigrants whose only crime is crossing the border.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus last week called on the president to halt deportations through the "Secure Communities" program, which is intended to identify and deport illegal immigrants who commit additional crimes. According to critics, though, the program ends up targeting the wrong people, sometimes separating families, and can lead to racial profiling. Critics also don't like that such programs enlist local law enforcement to do what Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are better trained to do. "If you have ICE personnel that at times have erroneously detained U.S. citizens and legal immigrants," says immigrant advocacy organization National Council of La Raza's Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, "what is the chance that the police [will also make] those mistakes without proper training?"
4. Step up deportations to set an example.
On the other hand, Obama also has the administrative authority under current law to step up deportations. The overall number of deportations has grown slightly since Obama took office, and the White House says the number of criminals kicked out of the country has increased 71 percent since 2008, but NumbersUSA's Beck says that the administration could do more. Congress has not appropriated enough funds to deport all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the nation, but Beck suggests that's not necessary. "You just get aggressive and increase deportations a certain amount," he says, "and the rest of the illegal aliens realize, 'Oh, I could get caught any time; I might as well go home.'"
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