Proponents alter immigration legislation in the face of tough economic climate

House Democrats are making changes to their immigration legislation to reflect the nation’s high unemployment rate.

The move comes as recognition that the 10.2 percent jobless rate – which is expected to rise and remain in double-digits for much of 2010 -- has altered the political landscape for an immigration bill.

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“Each bill is reflective of a time. And with unemployment over 10 percent I think we need to have language that is very carefully tailored,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

Some supporters of reforming U.S. immigration laws to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants acknowledge the tough economic times create a difficult climate for legislation.

“There are some things that will make it harder [than in past years],” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has co-sponsored legislation on immigration with Gutierrez.

“People will look at the unemployment numbers and say; ‘Well, why are we focusing on this?’  So, yeah, I think the hill’s a little steeper.”

The nation’s unemployment rate was 4.5 percent when legislation sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2007 stalemated in the Senate. Michigan, with 7.1 percent unemployment, was the state with the highest jobless rate at the time.

At the end of last month, 22 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and dozens of metropolitan areas had average unemployment rates above 9 percent. Michigan’s rate is above 15 percent. California’s is 12.2 percent.

Gutierrez said he hopes to keep as much of the framework of the 2007 legislation as possible, but some aspects will clearly have to change.

For example, the 2007 legislation created a “New Worker” program as an early step toward earned citizenship, but allowed the Secretary of Labor to reject new worker visas in areas where the unemployment rate rose above 9 percent.

Gutierrez said his latest bill will have to have much higher unemployment thresholds, and he said the dozen of Democrats he has included in an early immigration reform working group are looking at different policy options.

“We believe that every American should always have first crack at every job,” Gutierrez said. “Having said that, where the opportunities exist, we need to sustain our economy. And so we need workers.  Even in this very unstable economic situation we find ourselves in, there are still crabs that need to be picked, there are still onions going un-harvested. It’s just true.”

General anxiety over job security likely will continue to drive Republican opposition against House and Senate immigration bills.

“Americans are conditioned to believe that illegal workers are necessary,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an opponent of granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants, said Thursday at an immigration forum called: “American Jobs in Peril: The Impact of Uncontrolled Immigration.”’

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who announced the forum with King, argues the reforms advocated by Gutierrez would allow illegal immigrants to take jobs that should go to citizens and legal immigrants. Smith and King argue Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was wrong in suggesting last week that the recession has triggered a significant decline in immigration and the best opportunity to enact reform.

“How can they allow 12 million illegal immigrants to take jobs that should go to citizens and legal immigrants?,” he asked in a statement announcing the forum.  “And how can they claim that enforcement is ‘done’ when there are more than 400 open miles of border with Mexico, hundreds of thousands of criminal and fugitive aliens and millions of illegal immigrants taking American jobs?”

Flake said the unified GOP resistance to most Democratic priorities, unemployment and the emerging Democratic approach to immigration reform have made bipartisanship unlikely.

“Given what we’ve seen, I’d be surprised [to see a bipartisan bill],” he said.

Gutierrez and other advocates of a guest worker program are still charging ahead with plans for legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for some 12 million undocumented immigrants. They hope to see Congress begin a debate this spring, though this will depend on the Senate taking up legislation.

Gutierrez said he will “design language that guarantees that no American citizen, no one born in the United States of America, will ever lose a job opportunity to someone who is foreign born.”

“That has to be central,” he said.