Special Reports

Promises abound while politics stall on immigration

WASHINGTON -- Congress talks an awfully good game on immigration.

Since President Barack Obama took office, lawmakers have introduced several hundred immigration bills. Together, they address every conceivable problem, some more significant than others.

There are bills to build new border fences and boot out criminal aliens. There are bills to legalize immigrant farmworkers and college students. One bill would strengthen worker verification rules, another would admit Cuban baseball players.

But while words fly, real action seems stalled.

"The options are out there, and people understand them," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, "but the politics remain difficult."

Between January 2009 and Nov. 9, 2010, Obama signed into law 287 bills. Only two specifically concerned immigration.

One, signed early last year, briefly extended a special visa program for missionaries and other religious workers, as well as for medical professionals who work in underserved areas. The other, passed in August, provides $600 million for additional border security measures.

The money will pay for hiring 1,000 new Border Patrol agents, 250 Customs and Border Protection officers, new surveillance drones and equipment and more.

The bill does nothing, though, about the 11 million illegal immigrants now thought to already be in the United States. It does not change the rules under which employers operate, including how they check worker eligibility. Fundamentally, it leaves intact an immigration system that everyone describes as broken but that also defies political change.

"If anything is going to happen now, it has to be modest in scope," said Monte Lake, a longtime lobbyist for California farmers and others.

Immigration reform "takes a bipartisan commitment," Costa said -- in part because the issue cuts across party lines.

Little will happen before Republicans take over the House next year, and the complications only deepen in 2011. Even if House Democrats succeed in voting on an immigration bill in December, as some lawmakers hope to do before they lose power, the Senate will not move.

The incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, is a vocal conservative who has remained steadfastly opposed to what supporters call comprehensive immigration reform. Although Smith will use his committee chairmanship to focus on immigration, his consistent focus has been on border control.

Business, moreover, has a vested interest in maintaining a status quo in which there's little consequence for employing illegal immigrants.

Some lawmakers and advocates say it's time to ditch the so-called comprehensive approach, which tries to solve every problem on the table.

The last time Congress seriously debated immigration was in 2007, when lawmakers concocted a sprawling, 762-page package that covered everything from agricultural guest workers to legalization to border security. Politically, each provision was supposed to attract a distinct constituency.

The agricultural guest-worker bill, for instance, was folded in to attract votes from rural lawmakers and others who might not otherwise back an immigration package.

"It always felt like we were captured by the broader movement," Lake said. "They wanted us harnessed to the ox cart."

The 2007 comprehensive immigration bill died in the Senate; it failed to survive a filibuster.

Now, farmers and their allies speak of unhitching their bill from the larger effort that many believe is irrevocably mired. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for one, is pushing for separate action on the agricultural guest-worker and legalization plan dubbed AgJOBS.

The bill would legalize an estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrant farmworkers and streamline an existing guest-worker program that farmers consider too cumbersome. It might be combined with the so-called DREAM Act, legalizing an estimated 2.1 million immigrant college students and members of the military who arrived in the United States before they were 16.

"I feel very strongly we should move ahead on an incremental basis," Feinstein said. "If we keep waiting, we'll end up with nothing."

In September, though, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid failed in his bid to add the DREAM Act to a defense bill. Republicans and even some Democratic critics blasted Reid's effort as a transparent play for Hispanic voters in his native Nevada.

Even some ostensibly modest immigration proposals seem to be losing ground.

Seven years ago, for instance, the first AgJOBS measure arrived with great fanfare. At its political high-water mark, it once had 62 Senate co-sponsors. Now, for a variety of reasons, the bill is still waiting in the wings with only 22 co-sponsors.

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