Hispanic Caucus Aims To Shift Focus To Immigration The packed legislative agenda of 2009 left little room for immigration issues. But members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus plan to make it a priority in 2010.
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Hispanic Caucus Aims To Shift Focus To Immigration

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Hispanic Caucus Aims To Shift Focus To Immigration

Hispanic Caucus Aims To Shift Focus To Immigration

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Some lawmakers are hoping that this is the year they can resurrect immigration changes. Plenty of other matters squeezed immigration to the side in 2009 -from health care to climate change, to a proposed financial overhaul to the economy itself. Still, immigration has not been forgotten and could make an appearance this year. NPR's Audie Cornish reports from Capitol Hill.

AUDIE CORNISH: The last time President Obama even broached the topic of illegal immigrants before Congress was during his speech on health care, and frankly, things didn't go so well.

President BARACK OBAMA: The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

Representative JOE WILSON (Republican, South Carolina): You lie.

CORNISH: That was the night South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson made headlines for yelling you lie at the president. Since then, there hasn't been much about the topic out of either the Senate or the House - until now.

(Soundbite of chanting)

CORNISH: Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, vowing to put the issue front and center, have come up with their own proposal for what they call comprehensive immigration reform.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): We turned the other cheek. Just because we've been patient doesn't mean we could wait forever.

CORNISH: That's Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, at a press conference surrounded by Latino children wearing T-shirts that read future voter.

He and the caucus introduced a bill that would put undocumented workers on a path to citizenship � if they pay a $500 fine, learn English and undergo a criminal background check. The bill would also provide more training for border guards and seek better conditions at immigration detention centers.

But after a conservative backlash sent the last immigration overhaul effort down in flames in 2007, Gutierrez says, he knows what he's up against.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Opponents of immigration reform will use it as a wedge issue and will blame everything, from unemployment to rising health care costs, on immigrants. Of course, why stop at jobs and health care? Global warming? Rough stock market? Bad traffic? Lousy weather? Too many immigrants.

CORNISH: But what Gutierrez calls the blame game, opponents are calling the new economic reality. Republican Steve King of Iowa is already digging in his heels.

Representative STEVE KING (Republican, Iowa): I think the change in the dynamics in this immigration debate is that now instead of a 4.6 percent unemployment rate, we have a 10.1 percent unemployment. So, more than twice as much unemployment. It's clear there are at least eight million jobs in America, today, that are held by people that are here illegally. Those are jobs that Americans can and will do.

CORNISH: King and other Republicans say they have several core positions. They oppose what they call amnesty; they support a locked-down border; and they want employers to verify that everyone they hire is a U.S. citizen.

But Democrats say they have reasons to be optimistic, because the atmosphere has changed since 2007. First, high unemployment has slowed the flow of illegal immigrants, and Homeland Security officials say security is better than it was back then, with the addition of thousands more border patrol officers and hundreds of miles of new border fencing. Still, the administration isn't planning to make a move until Congress is ready. And Democrats may be more concerned about the midterm elections.

Mr. CHARLIE COOK (Analyst, Cook Political Report): You may see some Democratic House members just, you know, looking at bridges thinking about jumping off.

CORNISH: That's analyst Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. He says in the House alone, there are upwards of 60 Democrats in competitive districts. They have already had to take politically tough votes on climate change, health care and the economic stimulus package. Although, he adds, that the partisan battling has left both parties damaged.

Mr. COOK: Republicans have to be careful because they come across as anti-Hispanic and immigrant bashing, and Democrats are looking bad because it looks like they're trying to shove too much down the throats of people who are only interested right now in job creation and getting the economy turned around.

CORNISH: With the battle over health care still churning, action on immigration is uncertain at best. In the Senate, Democrat Charles Schumer of New York is drafting legislation with the help of South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. Lawmakers have discouraged smaller immigration bills from moving separately to preserve some political energy for a comprehensive measure they hope to move early next year.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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