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Immigration Activists Seek Action From Obama

March 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Proponents of changes to current immigration laws want the president to act on his campaign promises of reform. Ray Suarez gets two points of view on possible fixes for current laws affecting undocumented residents.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the prospects for enacting comprehensive immigration reform, another of President Obama’s campaign promises.

Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: They came from across the nation, from Arizona, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania, to implore the president and Congress to reform the country’s immigration laws.

MARGARITA MARTINEZ, immigration reform advocate: It needs to be done now, today, not tomorrow, not the next year. It must be taken care of today.

RAY SUAREZ: Tens of thousands of frustrated immigrants and activists turned out, while Congress focused on passing a health care reform act. The bulk of the protesters were Hispanic, but they were joined by immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.

PROTESTERS: Si, se puede! Si, se puede!

RAY SUAREZ: With chants of President Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes, we can,” in Spanish and English, they demanded the president’s focus now shift to immigration.

FRANCISCO RAMIREZ, immigration reform advocate: He broke his promise. I know he’s got a lot on his head right now, and I know he’s trying to fight for health reform, but immigration reform was on his agenda, too.

RAY SUAREZ: That reform has been bitterly fought out in Congress. The most recent attempt, supported by former President George W. Bush, was defeated in 2007, after opponents said the amnesty programs rewarded illegal immigrants.

President Obama benefited from a huge turnout of Latinos in the 2008 election, drawn by his promise to deliver immigration reform. Nearly two out of three voted for him.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We need a president who isn’t going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular.

RAY SUAREZ: But, in the 14 months since taking office, the president’s priorities shifted, focusing instead on health care and financial reform.

Manuel Sepulveda from Rochester, New York, said it’s time to remind the president of his campaign promises.

MANUEL SEPULVEDA, immigration reform advocate: Next election come and nothing is done about it, then we’re going to take a hard look at, you know, whether we’re going to send him back to Washington or not.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s been some bipartisan movement on immigration reform in the past few weeks. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina crafted a draft reform proposal.

But even Senator Graham feels the administration has not pushed hard enough.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: This idea that this administration has been unwavering on immigration reform is just political spin. And the people at the rally ought to know that.

RAY SUAREZ: For the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the Schumer-Graham proposal would allow a path to legalization. Illegal immigrants would admit to breaking the law to stay in the U.S., pay fines, and perform community service.

They also need to pass background checks and show proficiency in English. Plus, the plan would require all U.S. workers, both citizens and immigrants, to obtain fraud-proof Social Security cards with a biometric identifier. There would be a zero tolerance policy for illegal immigrants who commit crimes, and it would create legal ways for more low-skilled immigrants to enter the country once the economy recovers.

Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois is the congressional Hispanic Caucus’ point man on immigration and a close ally of the president. He says the Obama administration will keep its promise to turn to immigration reform, now that the health care fight is largely over, even if the politics are difficult after the bruising health care battle.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ, D-Ill.: There’s always an excuse. There’s always a reason. When things were good and the stock market was up, there was a reason. Now the stock market is down. Unemployment is up. There’s another reason.

My job, all right, my priority is to keep this moving forward. I can’t take a break. I can’t take a time-out. I can’t take a sabbatical because things are tough.

RAY SUAREZ: But Republican Representative Duncan Hunter, whose Southern California district borders Mexico, said he and GOP colleagues are not at all interested in taking up immigration this year.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER, R-Calif.: It is not pressing right now. And I don’t think that it should be pressing. I think we need to make sure that our — our southern border is secure, and we ought to work on the economy right now, work on national security, and — and — and take this up when America is back on its feet economically again.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with the tens of thousands on the National Mall, there were also immigration rallies yesterday in other cities across the country.

We get more on the prospects for reform from Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, and Jan Ting, a former assistant commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during President George H.W. Bush’s administration. He now teaches at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.

Ali Noorani, we have just come through a 14-month battle over health care reform. Can immigration reform, a huge undertaking, be done by the 2010 midterms?

ALI NOORANI, executive director, National Immigration Forum: Absolutely.

This is the only issue on the table at this moment in time that has a history of bipartisanship leadership, from the days of President Reagan, to Senators Kennedy and McCain, to, today, Senator Schumer and Graham. It is the only issue with bipartisanship leadership, the only issue that has a record of votes both from Democrats and Republicans.

And the country is starving for a bipartisan breakthrough like immigration reform that serves our interests, fixes our — is a fundamental part to fixing our economy, makes our nation secure, and, at the end of the day, creates the — the — the — or continues the essence of the American spirit.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Ting, is there time to get this done in this Congress?

JAN TING, Temple University Beasley School of Law: It’s not going to happen this year. It’s not going to happen next year, and it’s not going to happen the year after that.

The reality is, our immigration system, while not perfect, is not broken. We admit, every year, more legal immigrants with a clear path to full citizenship. We give out, if you will, more green cards every year than all the rest of the nations of the world combined.

So, this is not a broken system. This is a system that is appropriate for our nation of immigrants which follows in our immigrant tradition. I know Ali and I both have immigrant parents. And we have tremendous admiration and respect for immigrants.

But the question before the country is whether our admiration and respect for immigrants is so great that we’re willing to take all the immigrants or would-be immigrants in the world who want to come to the United States in search of a better life, or, alternatively, whether we want to impose a numeric limitation on how many immigrants we’re willing to take. And that is the status quo.

I’m a lawyer. I can argue both sides of that one, but our politicians don’t want to make that choice. They keep trying to look for a middle way that lets them look tough and compassionate at the same time. It’s not going to happen this year. There’s only seven-and-a-half months to the election. It’s not going to happen next year.

The Republicans are, everyone says, going to have even larger numbers. And it’s not going to happen in 2012, because that’s another presidential election year.

RAY SUAREZ: Ali Noorani, what do you think of that?

ALI NOORANI: This isn’t about immigrants. This is about America. This is about America, not about immigrants.

And the fact is that, if you legalize 12 million people, it leads to $1.5 trillion in economic growth. That, to me, makes sense. If you put the status quo on steroids, that means we’re spending $285 billion over the next five years to deport people. That is a waste of tax money.

I would much rather have $1.5 trillion in economic growth for our countries over 10 years than spending $285 billion over five years. This is about where we are going as a country. And it’s about what is good for small-business owners, for labor, organized labor, for workers, for African-American leadership, for African-American workers.

It’s not about immigrants. This is about what is good for us. And we have to fix this system, and we have to fix it now. And it — it — Congress cannot make excuses about timeline. Just like Congressman Gutierrez said, there’s always an excuse, time, politics, the economy, et cetera.

We can’t afford to wait any longer, just in our own interest as a nation.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, you talked about the question before the country, and talked about the system for letting people in down the road.

But isn’t a cornerstone part of the question before the country now what to do about the 10.8 million or 11 million people who are already here?

JAN TING: Absolutely. And that issue is no different than it was in 2006 and 2007, when Congress voted it down. It’s no different than it was in 1986, when Congress enacted the first amnesty, which then triggered another wave.

You know, Ali makes the good argument for open borders. If immigration is good, why not unlimited immigration? Let’s get all those benefits right away. I think there’s a coherent argument that can be made on that side. It’s just politically untenable.

The downside of numeric limitations is, as Ali points out, you have to end up enforcing the law against people who have not committed any crime, who are simply in excess of the number that we’re willing to admit. Again, we admit every year more legal immigrants with a clear path to full citizenship than all the rest of the nations of the world combined.

Is that enough? I think the majority of the American people think it is. I think it’s impractical to think that it’s going to go through. I see the argument for open borders, but I don’t think it’s a political sell. And I don’t think there’s really a middle ground here.

RAY SUAREZ: Ali Noorani, what’s your response?

ALI NOORANI: Well, I think the status quo of closed borders, but a broken — an economy that suffers because of a broken immigration system, is not good for us as a nation.

I think the political motivation for both parties is very clear. It’s a win-win for Democrats and Republicans alike. It is a solution that the majority of Americans are asking for, in fact, they’re demanding. It is a — the fact is, is that, without immigration reform, small-business owners are going to be undermined by crooked business owners who are just gaming the system, that native-born workers are going to be exploited because undocumented workers are being exploited.

So, we can — we can argue this in circles about the politics of it, the who is what, but, at the end of the day, we can’t afford to go on any longer without fixing the system. It is. It’s a — it is like a tax on us as a country.

JAN TING: People need to recognize…

RAY SUAREZ: But, today, spokesman Gibbs reiterated the president’s support. The president told Senators Graham and Schumer that he was in their corner when they unveiled their proposal recently.

ALI NOORANI: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you believe him, that he really is behind this, and getting it done right away, after the heavy lift of health care?

ALI NOORANI: I was in this meeting with — I was privileged enough to be in this meeting with the president about a week-and-a-half ago.

And he told us he is committed to moving this issue forward. He said this weekend at this rally that he’s committed to forge — doing everything in his power to forge a bipartisan consensus. Now this is up to Democrats and Republicans on the Hill to get to work and draft legislation and get it moving through the committees.

If the Republicans want to stand in the way of the aspirations of the fastest-growing electorate in the country, that is a banner I don’t think they can afford as a party. Democrats, on the other hand, they need to lead. If they don’t lead, the political consequence will be great. So, Democrats need to lead. Republicans need to belly up to the bar and get to work.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Ali suggests there are political perils and promise for both parties in the Capitol.

JAN TING: Well, it’s a complicated issue. It’s a hard choice. I admit that it’s a hard choice.

But the — the alternative, the — comprehensive immigration is simply a stalking horse for open borders. And all the arguments that Ali has made actually support open borders: Let everyone in the world who is coming here in search of a better life for themselves and their family do so, and we will reap all the benefits.

I don’t think the American people are going to buy that. And I don’t think they’re going to buy that dressed up as a kind of complicated comprehensive immigration reform package either. The reality is, we have some problems in our immigration system, and we can take them on. We can deal with detention. We can deal with our southern border that leaks like a sieve right now, with thousands of people coming in every night, and we have no idea who they are.

We have to deal with those problems. We’re not ready. I don’t think the American people are ready for unlimited immigration into the United States, for open borders. That’s too hard a lift for the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: And, very quickly, before we go, Professor, Ali, the tamper-proof I.D. card, a national I.D. card, is that in the offing, do you think?

Professor?

JAN TING: Well, I think, you know, in 1986, they thought they had the perfect fix. They were going to solve the problem with employer sanctions. It was a total bust, and we had a new wave of illegal immigration come in right after the amnesty. Same thing.

RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, Ali, do you think we’re going to get a national I.D. card?

ALI NOORANI: I think that’s going to be part of the solution that the Congress wants to put forward, but I think we have to make sure the border is secure, the interior is secure, and we have a functioning immigration system.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both.

ALI NOORANI: Thank you.

JAN TING: Thank you.