MCT REGIONAL NEWS
By Susan Carroll and Stewart Powell
Dec. 9--President-elect Barack Obama pledged to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority in his first term in the White House, but the nation's worsening economic woes may force delays on the campaign promise, experts said.
Some members of Congress also said the timetable for reform may have to await a better economy and a more receptive political climate to providing legal status to illegal immigrants in the U.S. Other Congressional leaders urged quick action on immigration reform, which has stalled in recent years amid fierce opposition.
''The downturn in the economy does represent a new environment," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that favors early action on immigration reform. "The economy is a very convenient argument (against reform) and one that resonates easily with people."
With growing unemployment, some advocates worried that illegal immigrants would be "scapegoated" for working without authorization. Unemployment jumped to 6.7 percent in November.
The election of Obama and his selection of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano -- a moderate on immigration issues -- to head the Department of Homeland Security had raised hopes of immigrant advocates that the new administration would submit early legislation to create a pathway for legal status for some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Obama had promised on the campaign trail to make immigration reform, including a legalization program, a "top priority" in his first term.
''We need a president who isn't going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive immigration reform when it becomes politically unpopular," Obama told the League of United Latin American Citizens in July.
But Reid Cherlin, a spokesman for Obama's transition team, said officials with the incoming administration were not available to discuss prospects for immigration reform.
''We're advising people to look at what Senator Obama said during the campaign," Cherlin said. "We're not going beyond that at this point."
Obama's transition team has merely named a two-person working group to begin reviewing options.
Georgetown law school dean T. Alexander Aleinikoff previously served as a top official in the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration. Stanford law school professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar previously served as a senior adviser to top Clinton administration officials on enforcement-related issues and has worked on recent projects examining the role of criminal enforcement in immigration policy.
Neither Cuellar nor Aleinikoff responded to requests for comment on prospective Obama administration plans.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus hopes to get an inkling on the scope and timetable for Obama's immigration plan when they meet in Washington D.C., on Wednesday with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., point man for the caucus on immigration reform. Gutierrez has met with Obama since the election to discuss plans for immigration reform, Gonzalez said.
Some Republicans are angling to hold Obama accountable for his campaign promise on a touchy political issue.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was an architect of a bipartisan attempt in the Senate in 2007 to craft legislation that blended enhanced border protection and enforcement with a pathway for legal working status and eventual U.S. citizenship.
''I hope he keeps his campaign promise," said Cornyn, now the leader of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP campaign organization that raises money and recruits Republican Senate candidates. "Securing our borders and fixing our broken immigration system must be a top priority."
James W. Ziglar, who served briefly as commissioner of the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service in the first term of President George W. Bush's administration, said he hoped for eventual action, as well.
''I think that the American people are tired of it and want to get it fixed," Ziglar said. "I do believe we're on the verge of getting something done that will be positive and meaningful."
Advocates of stricter border control are pledging to fight efforts to provide legal status to undocumented immigrants, an approach they describe as amnesty. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said immigrant advocates have overestimated the odds of passing a legalization program in Congress.
''I think the open borders ... groups are going to be really disappointed in this new administration's rhetorical commitment to their issues, but relatively tepid real commitment," said Krikorian, whose Washington, D.C.-based organization promotes stricter immigration controls.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy organization also based in Washington, said he expects an Obama administration to move for comprehensive immigration reform by next Thanksgiving, calling it "part and parcel of economic reform."
Some experts predicted the short-term impact of the change in administration would be a reduction in workplace raids. Others said they expected Congress to consider immigration legislation that previously failed to pass, such as a narrower legalization bill that would offer a chance at green cards for young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Gordon Quan, a Houston immigration attorney, said many of the problems with the current immigration system can be resolved with targeted legislation and administrative fixes while Congress and the new administration lay the groundwork for passage of a comprehensive bill.
''I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bath water and create a whole new system," Quan said. "We need to fine-tune what we have."
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