When you win the right to the rent-free digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, most mortals might be forgiven for thinking the hard part was over.
But, as Barack Obama and his predecessors have painfully learned, problems only begin upon securing the keys to the Oval Office.
Witness the hot-button issue of immigration reform.
During remarks at a Rose Garden event marking Cinco de Mayo, President Obama said that he only wants to “begin work this year” on overhauling America’s immigration architecture.
Aspiring to “begin the beginning” by year’s end is a long way from Obama’s 2008 campaign vow to peg immigration reform a “top priority”.
His Rose Garden remarks were a damage-control exercise linked to his Air Force One comments to reporters days earlier that, after the healthcare and financial sector reform fights, “there may not be an appetite” in Congress for a free-for-all on immigration.
With unemployment still hovering close to 10%, it’s debatable whether tactical delaying on an immigration showdown will save the Democrats in November’s mid-term elections.
But, as illustrated by the furious debate triggered by the recent passage of Arizona’s stringent illegal immigration crackdown legislation, reform won’t fade so easily. Kevin Johnson, an immigration law specialist, said that Arizona’s move is but the latest example of anti-immigration that has spiked at various points in US history.
“The song remains basically the same: blaming immigrants for all the bad things that they are doing to our society. That is pretty consistent with a long history of anti-immigrant hysteria,” Johnson told the Belfast Telegraph.
He also believes that if and when national immigration reform arrives, it won’t alter realities on the ground too dramatically.
“We have 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in this society. That hasn’t changed much, despite the hysteria, despite the enforcements increase. It’s unlikely to change significantly in the short-term.”
The main document currently in play on Capitol Hill is a draft proposal by three Democratic Senators — Harry Reid (Nevada), Charles Schumer (New York) and Robert Menendez (New Jersey).
The 26-page plan is stronger than 2007 legislation that was torpedoed in the Senate after being opposed by all Republicans and 14 Democrats.
In fact, its first 17 pages deal exclusively with new detection and enforcement mechanisms, designed to catch those who violate the law.
Regarding a so-called ‘pathway to citizenship’, all undocumented immigrants would have to register with the Government.
If they had no serious criminal record, they’d be granted Lawful Prospective Immigrant (LPI) status, allowing them to work in the US and travel outside the country without fear of not being allowed back in. After eight years, LPIs could apply for a Green Card, or permanent resident status.
What does it all mean for the undocumented Irish?
“If you’re Irish, and you’re illegal, this is going to be good for you,” insisted Bruce Morrison, a former Connecticut congressman who co-sponsored 1990 immigration legislation that ballooned visa access to people from Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“The only thing you could complain about is the wait to get a Green Card,” he added. “That is a long time. But during that time, you can work and travel legally.”
Due to lobbying from Morrison and others, the Schumer-Reid-Menendez draft includes an “Irish E3 visa” that will give two-year renewable visas to 10,500 new Irish people and their dependents each year. “So there will be no excuse for people to come illegally,” said Morrison.
But, having a draft plan, however impressive, is a far cry from having a law. It was only weeks ago that immigration overhaul prospects tumbled when Schumer lost a key Republican ally, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who walked away after the Democrats passed healthcare reform.
Still, Morrison remains optimistic: “Senator Schumer has been surprisingly resilient, and he’s making another go at it, so it’s still a long-shot. But it’s still a shot.”