Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Immigration reform top of President Obama's Christmas list

Hopeful: Barack Obama

Given the train-wreck roll-out of America's landmark healthcare reform law, once considered Barack Obama's crowning domestic policy achievement, the 44th president and his fellow Democrats desperately need a big policy win soon. And they're hoping that long-stalled immigration reform will be the ticket.

The Affordable Care Act's website meltdown, coupled with Obama's past erroneous assurances that no one would lose their private health insurance if they wanted to keep it, have been a godsend for Republicans.

Gone now, temporarily at least, is the Grand Old Party's villainous role in the majority of the public's eye for having forced October's disastrous federal government shutdown.

But, like Obama and the Democrats, the Republicans desperately need immigration law reform. Not only was capturing 71% of Latino voters pivotal to Barack Obama's drubbing of Mitt Romney in 2012, but several of last month's state elections highlighted again the importance of Latinos and Asians – America's fastest-growing immigrant groups.

The only immigration bill currently in play is the comprehensive one passed by the Senate in June by a 68-32 margin.

It includes provisions to boost border security, requires businesses to electronically verify a potential employee's immigration status, and outlines a lengthy and conditional pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Republicans have a 232-200 edge in seats majority in the 435-member House of Representatives (three seats are vacant). All 200 Democrats would likely support the Senate's bill. And probably at least 18 Republicans would as well, guaranteeing passage. But John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, won't allow a vote on the Senate's bill. Instead, he wants component-by-component votes on the different aspects.

That would provide cover to Republican members vulnerable to primary challenges from the Tea Party-driven Right.

By tackling immigration reform in piecemeal fashion, these members could officially register their opposition to the 'pathway to citizenship', which Tea Partiers loathe, while knowing full well, due to the numbers game, that it'll ultimately pass. Piecemeal is okay, say many top Democrats, as long as a 'pathway' for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants – including an estimated 50,000 Irish – is included.

Of concern to Ireland is the fate of the so-called 'Schumer visas', some 10,500 visas each year, offering perpetually renewable Green Cards that will allow applicants from Northern Ireland and the Republic to work and live in America.

Theoretically, if the House splits up the Senate's immigration bill, the Schumer visas could be vulnerable. But, so far, no voices of opposition have been raised.

Many pundits argue that immigration reform must happen this month, because trying to pass it during 2014, a congressional election year, wouldn't be possible.

But Ciaran Staunton, of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, noted that the last two major immigration reform bills were in 1986 and 1990 – both election years.

Noting that opinion polls show strong public support for immigration reform, Staunton added: "Americans support it. Democrats want it. Republicans need it."

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