A new poll finds most Americans strongly support an immigration reform plan with a path to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Immigration reform is coming, but in small steps

This election delivered a clear message to President Obama and the Democrats  – as well as the Republicans – that voters want immigration reform.  And this message did not just come from Latinos, by the way.  “Two thirds of voters in exit polls said they want a path to citizenship for immigrants in this country,” says Juan Sepulveda, Senior Advisor for Hispanic Affairs for the Democratic National Committee.

On election night, the newly re-elected President Obama said fixing our immigration system was a priority.  Today, Republican House Speaker John Boehner  was asked about immigration reform.  Boehner said that while he was not going to get into the details, “it is time to get the job done.”

Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who has championed reform and ‘Dreamer’ legislation, says Congress should move quickly on immigration reform for two reasons.  “One, we deport one thousand people per day, and every day that passes means more families destroyed,” as well as more money and law-enforcement hours wasted.  Secondly, Congressman Gutierrez adds, “the mass deportation approach and the self-deportation approach are dead politically – the funeral was on Election Night.”

New Jersey Democratic congressman Robert Menendez says he is looking forward “to working with the President and my colleagues in the 113th Congress – including newly elected members who are Latino – to work on  policies that matter to the country’s Hispanic community.”

But Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says that while she and fellow Latino Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart favor immigration reform, the reality is that many in her party are not eager to vote for the kind of sweeping, comprehensive reform which addresses the over 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country.  “While Speaker Boehner is more receptive to bipartisan support on this, I don’t think he is representative of the majority of our Caucus,” Ros-Lehtinen acknowledges.  In her opinion, the new House of Representatives coming in January is slightly more polarized. ” Our Republican makeup is less moderate, and   more conservative, and the Democratic House makeup is less conservative and more liberal,” Ros-Lehtinen says.

“I think we will do immigration reform bit by bit –  maybe not as big of a package as some immigration advocates want, but maybe some piecemeal Dream Act,” the Congresswoman says. “I don’t know how many people will be helped, or how broad it will be,” she adds.

Israel Ortega, from the conservative Heritage Libertad Foundation, thinks the Senate will take the lead, and then the issue is to work on something “palatable” to the Republican-led House. Like Ros-Lehtinen, Ortega foresees Congress passing easier immigration-related legislation first. “Perhaps they will pass legislation to make the visa process more efficient, or something focusing on the Dreamers,” Ortega says.

But DNC Advisor Juan Sepulveda says the Administration as well as immigrant reform-friendly legislators might have the support of what he calls “unexpected allies – the business and agricultural community, who were  already quietly coming on board, and now see there is a stronger starting position for pushing for immigration reform,” says Sepulveda.  Studies have shown the business and agricultural communities in states like Alabama have lost money after restrictive immigration-related policies have been put into place.

Cecilia Muñoz, White House Domestic Policy Council Advisor and a former immigrants rights advocate, said in a speech this spring that “it is hard to overstate what the Republicans’ unwillingness to engage on this issue has cost the country – it has undoubtedly cost us jobs,” Muñoz said.  She also added, though, that “we face a simple fact: no immigration bill has passed the U.S. Congress in at least a generation  and possibly ever – without bipartisan support.”

And while legislation to speed up efficiency in visa applications, or a policy for legalizing Dreamers would be welcomed by Latino immigration rights advocates, the reality is most Latinos and non-Latinos polled support comprehensive immigration reform.

“We expect action and leadership on comprehensive immigration reform; to both sides, no more excuses, we want action,” said Latino labor leader Eliseo Medina, of the Service Employees International Union, following President Obama’s re-election.

“For Latinos, 60 percent of whom know someone who is undocumented,” says Clarissa Martinez De Castro of the National Council of La Raza, “this is personal.”

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