Broken Borders: Will Immigration Reform Be Next?

Thousands expected in Washington on Sunday to push for immigration reform.

March 19, 2010, 9:05 AM

March 19, 2010— -- Renata Teodoro will come to Washington, D.C., Sunday to prod lawmakers to grant her the "American" status she's long desired.

Teodoro, 22, has been an undocumented resident for 16 years. Her mother, sister and brother were deported to Brazil in 2007.

This weekend, Teodoro will join thousands of activists and immigrants who will descend on the nation's capital to urge Congress and President Obama to act on immigration reform.

"I want to see them have courage" to pass an immigration reform bill, Teodoro said.

Seeing an end in sight for the health care debate, dozens of grassroots organizations have upped the pressure on lawmakers to take up the issue of immigration reform. But with little political capital left to spare and Democrats facing a grueling fight ahead in the midterm elections, experts say the chances for immigration reform happening in the near future look to be slim to none.

"It's obviously very difficult to see an immigration reform bill happening this year, given all the other issues on the legislative agenda," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's big, complex legislation."

Democrats and the White House face a slew of other pressing hot-button issues, from climate change to financial reform.

Obama has pledged "unwavering commitment" to immigration reform, but he has yet to outline a specific proposal for fixing what both Republicans and Democrats call a broken system. In his State of the Union address, Obama only offered a few words on the subject.

"It was almost painful," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said of the president's apparent lack of enthusiasm for immigration reform in the address. "It was like, wow -- that was like root canal for him."

Gutierrez introduced comprehensive immigration legislation in the House late last year.

Experts say the president wants to convey that immigration reform is on his agenda but that proponents need to be patient.

"I do think the president has signaled clearly his intention to pursue a reform bill at some point," Alden said, but "the White House has stopped talking about timetables."

Obama last week met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, immigration advocates, and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who have been crafting bipartisan legislation in the Senate.

In an op-ed today in the Washington Post, Schumer and Graham emphasized the need for reform.

"Developing a rational legal immigration system is essential to ensuring America's future economic prosperity," they wrote.

Obama on Thursday urged Congress to act on Schumer and Graham's proposal "at the earliest possible opportunity" and said he would "do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year" on immigration reform.

"My administration will be consulting further with the senators on the details of their proposal, but a critical next step will be to translate their framework into a legislative proposal, and for Congress to act at the earliest possible opportunity," the president said in a statement.

While both Republicans and Democrats argue immigration reform is needed, lawmakers have made little headway in recent years.

Congress last enacted immigration reform legislation in 1986, when millions of illegal immigrants were granted amnesty and enforcement measures were strengthened. That effort proved ineffective at curtailing the flow of illegal immigrants, 12 million of whom are now estimated to reside in the United States.

Varying Views on Immigration Reform

Three years ago, President Bush failed to pass a reform bill after a protracted effort and heated partisan debate. Much of the controversy then surrounded Bush's proposed path to legalization for undocumented immigrants already in the country -- a move opponents decried as amnesty for law breakers.

Several of the current reform proposals include such a measure, which has received support from members of the administration.

The Schumer-Graham proposal calls for a "tough but fair path forward" for undocumented immigrants, and Gutierrez's House bill lays out a similar plan.

Both would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs, are in school or serve in the U.S. military to "earn legalization" by registering with the government, passing background checks, learning English and paying taxes and fees.

Despite the bipartisan support and enhanced enforcement measures in both plans, several anti-immigration groups are already lining up against such legislation, saying it would be bad for the recovering American economy.

"If immigration gets teed up next, I think you'll see most of the Tea Party movement be even stronger on this," said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, an anti-immigration group whose 930,000 members want a moratorium on all forms of immigration.

"What we were able to mobilize in 2007 to beat back the [bill] is nothing compared to what we'll mobilize this year," he said.

However, proponents of immigration reform warn that Obama and Democrats' failure to address immigration this year could have negative political consequences.

"It's important that the president at least go to bat for this [Hispanic] community," said immigration attorney Michael Wildes, because they "will go just as quickly to the Republican side" if they don't receive support from Democrats.

Latino voters represent the largest minority voting group in the country, and while they vote overwhelmingly Democratic, their turnout could be key in close races -- including the 2012 presidential campaign.

"So many wonderful things this administration has done that have really improved the quality of life for the Latino community in general would be overshadowed because they failed to act on this critical issue," Gutierrez told ABC News.

"I think we're going to learn a lot more in the very near future" as to whether the administration is going to take this on next, he said. "I've made it very clear to everyone who will listen that I want this president to lead on comprehensive immigration reform."

Even as prospects for immigration reform in 2010 remain uncertain, people like Teodoro are not planning to back down.

"I feel like we need to keep pushing," she said. "[On] controversial things, people always tell you to wait. The reality is we can't wait and the only way to make them do it is to push them."