Immigration advocates rejoiced this fall when President Obama, elected with 71% of the Latino vote, said that he would make immigration reform a priority in 2013. Then came the fiscal cliff, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and now the looming debate over the debt ceiling. While some pundits think that Obama will shelve immigration reform for the year, a few promising developments — in addition to the successful passage of the fiscal cliff legislation — suggest that it may indeed come up for a vote in 2013.
Last week, the Obama administration announced that it would allow undocumented immigrants who have a U.S.-citizen spouse, parent, or child to apply for a green card from within the United States. Previously, undocumented immigrants had to return to their native countries to apply for a visa, a risky endeavor due to a 1996 statute that automatically restricted undocumented immigrants who left the U.S. from reentering for up to 10 years. This policy change, much-lauded by immigrant families, was another example of immigration reform through executive action. Obama first used executive action last June to grant temporary legal status to so-called "Dreamers," undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 and are high school graduates or military veterans.
A few administrative changes announced before the New Year also indicate a shift toward reform, although they were met with some skepticism. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that its “detainer” policy would now focus on undocumented people with prior criminal convictions. An immigration detainer mandates that local law enforcement hold an undocumented immigrant in custody until ICE decides whether to begin deportation proceedings. Advocates have long considered this program deeply flawed, as it can result in deportation — and the separation of families — for such low-level offenses as a traffic violation. ICE also announced that it would be greatly reducing the 287(g) program, which authorized local police to question people about their immigration status.
While the changes were welcomed by advocates, their excitement was tempered by ICE’s release — on the same day — of startling figures on deportations in 2012. Last year, 409,849 people were deported — a new record. Moreover, advocates recognize that these changes won’t necessarily mean less enforcement: for example, by reducing the 287(g) program, ICE will simply be concentrating more on immigration enforcement in local jails. (In fact, a report by the Migration Policy Institute released this week found that the U.S. government spends more on immigration enforcement agencies than on the other main criminal law enforcement agencies — including the FBI and the DEA — combined.)
However, the news from Washington last week buoyed optimism among some advocates. Frank Sharry, executive director of the advocacy organization America’s Voice, told The Huffington Post that after the fiscal cliff debates, he thought lawmakers might jump at the chance to make legislation in a more conventional way.
"I never thought I’d say this, but after bruising battles over the future of the American and world economy, the chance to legislate through regular order on immigration reform might have leaders in both parties working together and singing ‘Kumbaya,’" Sharry said.
The Huffington Post also reported that, according to an anonymous White House official, Obama was still planning to push for both immigration reform and gun control legislation this January, and a bill could possibly go up for a vote in June.
In other promising news, a record number of Latino lawmakers were sworn into Congress last week — there are now three Latino senators and 33 representatives — and Vice President Joe Biden urged them to push for immigration reform. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) also announced that he was switching from the Financial Services Committee to the Judiciary Committee in order to “get immigration reform to the finish line.” Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have been meeting since the first week of December to discuss immigration reform. As the new term begins, immigrant advocates are keeping their fingers crossed.