RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
And one issue you heard neither of those two candidates speak about during the general election campaign was immigration. Barack Obama is on record supporting a sweeping overhaul of the system. Perhaps the most controversial part of that would be legalizing the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the United States. As part of our occasional series, "Memos to the President," NPR's Jennifer Ludden explains what President-elect Obama can expect to hear from immigration advocates and opponents.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: In recent years, political advice on immigration for both parties has gone something like this: It's the third rail of politics. The less said, the better. If you say anything, talk tough. But as the new Washington landscape shapes up, this may change.
FRANK SHARRY: What the election showed is that the conventional wisdom on why immigration reform is too hot to handle is wrong.
LUDDEN: Frank Sharry head's America's Voice, a pro-immigration lobbying group. First, he says the Latino vote is finally a force to reckon with. Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Senator Obama, and that helped deliver several swing states. Polls show the immigration issue helped drive them to the Democrats.
SHARRY: And then the large, vocal anti-immigrant vote that has hijacked the Republican Party, they have a lot of bark, but not a lot of bite. They couldn't turn elections.
LUDDEN: Of 18 close congressional races Sharry's group tracked, he says nearly all were won by pro-legalization Democrats over enforcement-only Republicans. So, immigration reform in the first 100 days? Well, not likely. And if nothing else, that's because of the economy. Labor economist Vernon Briggs of Cornell University says it's harder to argue for legalizing millions of low-skilled immigrants when many more low-skilled Americans are likely to find themselves out of work.
VERNON BRIGGS JR: Remember, the unemployment rates for unskilled workers - for those without high school diplomas or only a high school diploma - are the highest in the United States. There is no indication that our labor force is one that is in desperate need of unskilled, poorly educated, non-English-speaking workers.
LUDDEN: Supporters of legalization look at it differently. They say the best way to make sure immigrants are not an unfair threat to American workers is to make the immigrants legal. But even ardent immigrant advocates admit the economic collapse does change something else. Craig Regelbrugge co-chairs the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
CRAIG REGELBRUGGE: It probably takes off the table the creation and rapid implementation of any major new guest worker program.
LUDDEN: Still, even if there's no support for bringing in new workers, Regelbrugge sees an argument for legalizing agricultural workers already here. Seventy percent of them are believed to be undocumented, and he says these jobs don't disappear in a bad economy. Regelbrugge says efforts to find Americans to take ag jobs have failed, but each immigrant worker supports three to four other U.S. workers.
REGELBRUGGE: So to the extent that Freida the fertilizer salesperson or Chuck the cheese factory worker are worried about their own well-being, so too they should be worried about Miguel the milker and Pepe the peach picker, because their jobs are here together. And if the production moves, the American jobs move too.
LUDDEN: With the economic crisis, health care, and energy dominating the political agenda now, the Obama administration and the next Congress may well be tempted to keep pushing off immigration. But if they do, lobbyist Frank Sharry would urge them to think about 2012 and the decisive Latino vote that will have grown even bigger by then. Sharry believes Democrats will need to push an immigration overhaul to satisfy this now crucial constituency. And if the diminished GOP hopes to win back some Hispanic support, it could be harder for them to oppose it. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: To read more stories about health care, the Justice Department, and energy policy from our ongoing series "Memo to the President," go to npr.org.
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