US President Barack Obama’s re-election this month gave supporters of comprehensive immigration reform a dose of optimism.
They hoped that Obama, bolstered by the 70 percent-plus support he received from Hispanic voters, might now feel ready to champion the cause he largely avoided during his first term.
They thought that Republicans, after the thumping they got at the hands of Latinos in the Nov. 6 election, might soften their resistance to reform in order to stay competitive.
However, as advocates mobilize for what is likely to be a two-year drive to get an immigration law enacted, their optimism may be tested by a dose of reality.
No matter how sympathetic Obama may be, he will be preoccupied with fiscal battles well into next year and less likely to engage in the kind of salesmanship analysts believe is key to sell broad immigration policy changes to the public.
As a group, Republicans in US Congress, may not be eager to reverse long-held and deeply felt positions on immigration in an era when so many are vulnerable to primary election challenges from the right. Plus, they may be just as consumed by fiscal issues as the rest of Washington.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner said the so-called “fiscal cliff” — the tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January — will suck up Washington’s energy early next year, even as his party wants to use the new US Congress to tackle big issues like immigration, climate change and job creation.
Immigration reform, which has failed repeatedly in Congress over the past decade, aims to accomplish several goals — none of them easy.
For Democrats and their labor union supporters, the 11 million undocumented foreigners, many having spent years in the US, should be allowed to come out of the shadows and given a path to citizenship while working in the US legally.
Many Republicans say that this approach would reward those who broke the law by jumping in front of those waiting to emigrate legally.
The 11 million includes the children of illegal immigrants.
Obama, impatient with Congress’ inaction and with an eye on re-election, last June moved on his own to allow some to avoid deportation for two years and obtain work permits.
For Republicans, stronger enforcement measures are necessary to keep more illegals from entering the US through states bordering Mexico, especially if an improving US economy begins creating more jobs. Democrats argue that tough controls are already in place.
Both sides want to more efficiently verify legal workers in the US, while the business community wants better access to low-paid farm workers and well-paid high-tech workers on a temporary basis.
“At a minimum, they’ll want to have a bill [introduced] by early spring, around April,” said Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, who follows Congress for the AFL-CIO, the confederation of US labor unions.
Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat and a close ally of Obama, said he aims to get such a bill onto the Senate floor for votes next year. US Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy in an interview said his panel would move early to write the measure.
It was Obama’s re-election that emboldened his fellow Democrats in Congress to move swiftly with immigration legislation next year. It has also led some Republicans to conclude that they have to start responding to the concerns of the US’ fastest-growing demographic group.
Republicans’ election losses prompted US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner to say immigration reform was needed.
However, one senior House Republican aide, who did not want to be named, said House Republicans are “still pretty conservative.”
In addition, the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that would craft that chamber’s immigration bill, could be Representative Bob Goodlatte, a conservative who opposes amnesty for illegals.
Goodlatte has praised the controversial Arizona law cracking down on illegal immigrants that has been partially struck down by the US Supreme Court.
Representative Steve King, also a conservative Republican, said during a post-election press conference that Obama could not be trusted to enforce any immigration reform law that Congress might produce.
He downplayed any notion that an alienated Hispanic community contributed to Republican losses.
However, Representative Raul Labrador, a fellow conservative and Puerto Rico native, rebutted King, saying that Hispanic votes are essential to a healthy Republican Party.
“One of the biggest things conservatives talk about often is that we want to fix a broken government. Well, if you know anything about immigration law, the immigration system is absolutely broken in the US,” Labrador said.
In the Senate, the work will start without some of the titans of earlier immigration battles. Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, died in 2009. Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican-turned-Democrat, lost a 2010 Democratic primary and left the Senate before his death last month.
Senator Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican, will leave at year’s end along with Joseph Lieberman, an independent. It is unclear whether Senator John McCain will help lead the fight or be neutral.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Durbin, joined by fellow Democrats Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer, will watch closely to see whether some fresh Republican faces become serious players.
Among those Republicans are first-term Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and incoming senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ted Cruz of Texas — all conservatives from states with big Latin populations.
In his first term, Obama disappointed many Hispanics and Democrats with his aggressive deportation policy and failure to seek broad immigration reforms.
A House Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified, said that when it came to immigration reform, Obama “for the most part sat back and told Congress to work it out and ‘I’ll give a speech.’ He’s going to have to be more hands-on.”
Meanwhile, Hispanics are hoping that change is finally close.
“We have a check to cash, and 2013 is going to be a new year,” said Daniel Rodriguez of United We Dream, a network of youth-led immigration groups.