Analysis: 6 Things Obama Needs To Do for Immigration Reform

Leadership, strategy and a clear message on immigration.

December 31, 2012, 3:37 PM

Jan. 2, 2013— -- On Sunday, President Barack Obama said that immigration reform is a "top priority" on his agenda and that he would introduce legislation in his first year.

To find out what he needs to do to make reform a reality, we talked to Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director at America's Voice, a group that lobbies for immigration reform, and Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank. Here's what we came up with.

1. Be a Leader

During Obama's first term, bipartisan legislation never got off the ground. The president needs to do a better job leading the charge this time around, according to Chishti. "He has to make it clear that it's a high priority of his," he said. "He has to make it clear that he'll use his bully pulpit and his political muscle to make it happen, and he has to be open to using his veto power." His announcement this weekend is a step in that direction, but he needs to follow through.

2. Clear Space on the Agenda

Political priorities aren't always dictated by the folks in D.C., as the tragic Connecticut school shooting shows us. While immigration had inertia after the election, the fiscal cliff and gun violence have been the most talked about issues around the Capitol in recent weeks. The cliff could recede from view now that Congress has passed a bill, but how quickly the president can resolve the other issues on his agenda could determine whether immigration reform is possible this year. "There's only limited oxygen in the room," Chishti said.

3. Choose an Approach

The president has said that he plans to introduce his own immigration legislation in 2013. That's a strategic choice -- he could also wait for Democrats or Republicans in Congress to come up with a bill. Some Republicans, like Speaker of the House John Boehner, seem ready to cede leadership on the issue to the president. But that doesn't preclude Republicans in Congress from coming up with their own piece of legislation, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a strong voice on immigration in his party, recently met with reform champion Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.).

Obama's decision to introduce his own bill could also have repercussions in the 2014 congressional elections. A liberal immigration bill could put Republicans in the position of either embracing the president's approach or adopting more restrictionist positions, as noted by The Daily Caller. Congressional Republicans could find themselves facing the same questions as Mitt Romney in whether to embrace reform or something like "self-deportation."

4. Acknowledge the Power of the Latino Vote

What sort of policies should be included in a 2013 reform bill? An article in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month mentioned that the White House could pick up more than 300 pages of draft legislation that was developed during the first term. But that might not be as relevant today. The role that Latino voters played in the election -- and will continue to play in future elections -- has changed the game, according to Lynn Tramonte.

The president and Congress need to "realize that the negotiating dynamic has changed on this issue," she says. "Democrats bring the votes to immigration reform but Republicans have the most to gain with it politically." Groups like America's Voice are hoping that means a better chance at passing a large-scale legalization program without the same level of increased enforcement that has been proposed as a trade-off in the past. "We've done a lot of enforcement, but what we haven't done is deal with the 11 million people without papers."

5. Keep a Clear Message

Remember death panels? The claim started on Sarah Palin's Facebook page but became a headache for the Obama administration during the fight for healthcare reform (It was eventually awarded PoliFact's "Lie of the Year" for 2009). The president will need to focus on selling the core points of the bill -- which could be quite complicated overall -- and not get distracted by minutia and misinformation. "Something that happened in healthcare was that it was very confusing to Americans," Tramonte said. "They didn't know what was in the bill...Immigration has the potential to be much simpler."

6. Move Quickly

"Time is of the essence," according to Tramonte. Members of Congress are always looking ahead to the next election, and some advocates think a reform bill will need to be introduced early in 2013 to have a chance. "I don't think it helps any issue to stay out there in Congress for a long time," Tramonte said. "Just get it off the table and move on to the next thing."

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