By Mike Lillis - 06/30/12 06:15 PM EDT
Leading House Democrats say President Obama has a great opportunity to pass immigration reform next year if he keeps the White House, but warn his window to act will be short.
Although Obama vowed on the campaign trail four years ago to make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority of his presidency, he never focused intently enough on the issue to move major changes through Congress.
"There is no luxury to say there's a bigger issue in front of us," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "It is, and will continue to be, one of the top three [issues] he's going to have to deal with."
Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), vice chairman of the Democrats' Steering and Policy Committee, sounded a similar note this week. Cuellar pointed out that the issues Obama prioritized in his first term — including emergency economic stimulus, healthcare reform and finance reform — have largely been resolved, and no other major issue is screaming out for immediate attention in 2013.
"There will be a window of opportunity next year," Cuellar said. "Immigration should be the big issue."
On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama said comprehensive immigration reform would be a top goal of his White House. But Republican opposition to the Democrats' reform proposals — combined with a focus on the recession, healthcare reform and now November's elections — all led Obama away from any sustained push for an overhaul.
Cuellar said members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Obama in April of 2009, just a few months after the president was sworn in, and warned him about the "little window" of opportunity to move immigration legislation.
"If we don't do anything, then the 2010 elections come in and the window closes," Cuellar recalled lawmakers telling Obama at the time.
"He told us, 'Oh, once I finish this, we're going to get on it.' But he never did," Cuellar said.
That inaction angered immigrant rights advocates, who have hounded Obama throughout his term to fight harder for reforms. Contributing to the advocates' agitation, the Obama administration has stepped up law enforcement efforts against illegal immigrants — a move designed, at least in part, to silence conservative critics and convince Republicans to support targeted reforms like the DREAM Act.
It didn't work.
Although the DREAM Act — which would create a pathway to legal status for qualified illegal immigrants brought to the United States at a young age — passed the House in late 2010, it was shot down by a GOP filibuster in the Senate.
Sidestepping Congress, Obama this month surprised all sides of the debate when he overhauled his immigration policies to forego deportations for qualified high-achievers brought to the country before the age of 16. The new policy applies to roughly the same population that would benefit from the DREAM Act.
The move caught Republicans and their standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, off guard. When Romney did respond to Obama’s move six days later, it was with a vague but sweeping plan that's tough on enforcement but more lenient in its approach to illegal immigrants than many conservatives support — a move away from the hard-line positions he advocated during the GOP primary, and a nod to the growing power of Latino voters.
The Supreme Court handed Obama another immigration victory this week when it shot down most of Arizona's strict immigration law. Grijalva said the combination of Obama's executive move on deportations and the high court's Arizona decision will help a presidential push for additional reforms next year.
"It has given him [Obama] some initiative," Grijalva said.
Both Grijalva and Cuellar pointed to several areas of immigration policy where they think a bipartisan consensus is achievable, including reforms related to guest workers, border security and family unification efforts.
"The path to legalization — that's a bigger debate," Grijalva said. "[But] there is a bipartisan agreement that the system is broken."
Cuellar said the politics surrounding immigration have changed since the DREAM Act was last considered, particularly with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a rising GOP star, urging his fellow Republicans to adopt a more compassionate approach to dealing with the many thousands of illegal immigrants brought to the country as children.
Cuellar said he's had Republicans approach him recently offering to sit down next year in search of immigration reforms both sides can support.
"Some of them are looking at just doing the DREAM Act [and not comprehensive reform]," Cuellar said. "But at least they're talking about it. So we'll have an opportunity."
The one impediment to a focused immigration reform push early next year, Cuellar warned, could be some of the many tax, healthcare, unemployment and defense-spending issues Congress must take up before January. If lawmakers simply punt some of those things into 2013, they would be forced to take them up quickly next year. Otherwise, Cuellar said, a reelected Obama would have a real shot at passing the immigration reforms that have been a third-rail in Washington for most of the last decade.
Key to the success of such a push will be a focus on enforcement, the Democrats conceded. Still, they said it's worth the effort to solidify a bipartisan compromise and end the years-long stalemate on an immigration overhaul.
"All sides have conceded the point that enforcement has to be central to reform," Grijalva said. "So there we are. Where do we go from there?"
The Democrats hope the answer comes early next year.