Immigration Advocates Press For Changes

Thousands of people marched on the National Mall Sunday, demanding action on another one of President Obama's 2008 campaign promises: a comprehensive rewrite of the nation's immigration laws. The marchers want a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Now that the White House has scored a legislative victory on health care, many of President Obama's supporters are pushing for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Among the things they want: a path to citizenship for people who are in the country illegally. Joining us to talk about what may be the next big social issue for the White House is NPR News analyst Juan Williams, who joins us from station WBEZ in Chicago.

Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama did promise to make this issue a priority when he was running for president. What has he done about it so far?

WILLIAMS: Zero. And that's why you had the big march in Washington that supporters said brought 150,000 people to the Mall. They are frustrated with this White House. They feel as if immigration has been put on a back burner. And the power of their vote - remember, they turned out in surprisingly large numbers for Barack Obama. And they feel that that effort has been forgotten.

WERTHEIMER: You were watching closely the last time that Congress grappled with this issue. That didn't work so well.

WILLIAMS: No. It went back to '06 and '07, and then you had marches, as well. But ultimately, even with President Bush, a Republican in the White House and Democratic control of both the House and the Senate, what you saw was that there was an overwhelming grassroots opposition to immigration reform, especially to this idea of amnesty. The talk show hosts on the right wing really went nuts about it.

It was as if it had become a new third rail. Normally, we talk about social security and maybe recently health care as a third rail in American politics. But now, for about five years, immigration has been a third rail issue, too hot to touch.

WERTHEIMER: There is legislation pending in both houses of Congress. What do you think are the prospects of those bills?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the best prospect is for a Senate bill. It's bipartisan. It's being proposed by Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina.

And under that bill, what you have is immigrants who are here illegally, in order to apply for a legal residency or citizenship, would have to admit that they broke the law in the way that they got into the United States. And then secondly, they'd have to pay fines and back taxes. And finally, they'd have to undergo a background check and prove that they can speak English.

Now, that's pretty direct. And remember, you've got about 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. And so this would be a clear ladder for them to make progress.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, realistically, don't you think, though, Juan, despite the president's support in the Hispanic community, time is kind of getting short. I mean, isn't the schedule really against doing one more big messy, politically consequential thing, with the midterms just months away?

WILLIAMS: You're exactly right, Linda. I think the calendar works against immigration reform right now. Now, there are more rallies planned around the country in early April, at the end of this congressional recess. And you can imagine that there's going to be an outpouring of immigrants coming to the forefront. They're very concerned about the high levels of deportation taking place.

But in terms of the real politics on the ground, I think you're going to see some Democrats and lots of Republicans who get very antsy about doing anything before the November elections. And that means that immigration reform - its best hopes would be in late November and December. And that's a very tight window, then, before you start talking about presidential politics in 2011.

WERTHEIMER: Juan Williams, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: Linda, my pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's news analyst Juan Williams. He joined us from Chicago.

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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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