After two postponements, President Barack Obama recently carried out a key meeting with Democratic and Republican members of Congress at the White House There was guarded optimism from the immigrants’ rights movement in response to the meeting. But all agree that there will be no progress without increased struggle from the grassroots.

During the 2008 election campaign, Obama had not emphasized immigration reform as a central theme, but had said enough on his campaign website and in his speeches to suggest that he would get to the issue early. Like most leading Democrats, he said that he would find a mechanism to legalize the undocumented immigrants at the country (estimated at almost 12 million by the authoritative Pew Foundation) with new mechanisms of immigration control both at the border and within the country. This was enough help rally Latino and immigrant voters to Obama’s side in November.

Obama faces pressure from several sides on this issue.

*Organized labor and the immigrants’ rights movement wants quick action to pass legislation (not yet introduced) allowing legalization of the undocumented. They have formed an alliance called Reform Immigration FOR America (RI4A) which includes both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, plus scores of other labor, community and religious organizations. They do not have a bill in Congress yet. They advocate the legalization of the undocumented, some new border and internal control measures, and a commission to study future labor needs and determine how new work related visas are to be allocated.

*The Republican ultra-right is dead set against legalization, and threatens to block any legislation that gives undocumented immigrants a break, while pushing for even harsher enforcement measures. The anti-immigrant campaign of slander and misinformation in the media is still going full blast.

*Some elements of the Democratic Party (Blue Dogs and others) oppose legalization and call for more repression. There are enough of these (about 40 in the House and a proportional number in the Senate) that the White House and the Democratic leadership still think some Republicans may have to be won over to reform to make up for their votes against.

*Big business interests, including the US Chamber of Commerce, threaten to scuttle immigration reform unless any legislation include a large guest-worker program. In exchange for the cheap labor they would lose when undocumented workers were give legal rights, they want a replacement in the form of easily-exploitable guest workers. John McCain (R-AZ) has become the spokesman for this position in the Senate. Some Democrats are also pushing for guest workers because of pressures from industries in their states and districts. But if legislation incorporates this kind of guest worker program, it will threaten to break up the unity of organized labor on the issue, as happened in the last three Congresses.

*Some leading Democrats are not against immigration reform per se, but favor delaying it until president Obama’s second term, for tactical political reasons.

The worry in the immigrants’ rights movement has been that if immigration reform does not happen this year, it will be impossible in 2010 given election year politics. Meanwhile, although big factory raids have not been continued (with one exception) by the Obama administration, other kinds of immigration enforcement continue to wreak havoc with families and communities. Hence the haste in trying to get it done “this year” in spite of all the other crises facing the country and the undeniable political difficulty of the task.

At any rate, after the June 25 White House meeting with 12 Senators and 18 Congresspersons, both Obama and pro-immigrant legislators emerged in an upbeat mood. Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Il), the Caucus’ point man on immigration issues, both felt that Obama had really committed himself to passing legislation this year. “I don’t think he could have been clearer…..or more committed that he wanted to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality” Gutierrez told the press.

President Obama announced after the meeting that he has assigned Homeland Security Napolitano to coordinate a task force to work on the issue.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have both stated that immigration reform can and should be pushed this year. Most immigration reform activists see the results of the White House meeting as positive. Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum and a key leader in RI4A, said “In the coming weeks, the Reform Immigration FOR America campaign will be working in at least 41 states to organize supporters and build the coalition that will help make President Obama’s call for reform a reality. There is tremendous support for comprehensive immigration reform among the American people, with polls showing two-thirds support and a strong desire to move forward”.

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