First Business After Inauguration: Immigration

President Barack Obama steps up to the podium before a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.   National Journal

President Obama is pressuring lawmakers to complete work on immigration next year. If they were starting from scratch, such a major endeavor would seem impossible. But under the Obama administration's vision, it is more than doable because he is simply picking up the conversation where it left off in 2007, when an massive immigration bill died on the Senate floor.

"My expectation is that we ... begin the process in Congress, very soon after my inauguration," Obama said in a news conference on Wednesday.

The outline of an immigration deal is already there. It involves a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and tightened restrictions on the border and in the workplace so that it will be harder for illegal immigrants to live in the United States and find work.

Now all that is needed is the coalition that supports it. That's happening too. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who crafted similar legislation in 2006 with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., tweeted after the election, "I agree with calls for comprehensive immigration reform." Senator-elect Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., worked on similar legislation in the House. Both McCain and Flake rejected legalization of illegal immigrants in the 2010 tea party wave, but they have said they did so because it was not politically viable. Now it is.

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On the Democratic side, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who helped craft the family portions of the legislation in 2007, is gearing up for the talks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has wanted to do immigration legislation since 2006 and has complained bitterly about being blocked by Republicans.

It helps to have a presidential kick in the pants to get things going in Congress. Obama gave it on Wednesday. He is upping the ante on a timeline that he outlined for the Des Moines Register before the election, when he said immigration was his second priority after solving the fiscal cliff/budget issues. He said then that the budget talks should be resolved in about six months. Aides on Capitol Hill have hinted that serious work on an immigration bill would start soon after the new Congress convenes next year, but Obama's timeline adds considerable pressure on lawmakers to actually make it happen.

It should make for an interesting spring. While tax writers and budget analysts will be hashing out the components of a "grand bargain" on the national deficit, the immigration experts on the Hill will be negotiating their own legislation. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently revived an immigration blueprint they were discussing several years ago. It consists of border security, a tamper-proof work authorization card, and a path to citizenship for eligible undocumented immigrants.

That's very similar to the plan that Obama outlined. "I think it should include a continuation of the strong border security measures that we have taken, because we have to secure our borders. I think it should contain serious penalties for companies that are purposefully hiring undocumented workers and taking advantage of them. And I think there should be a pathway for legal status for those who are living in this country, are not engaged in criminal activity, are here simply to work."

The forthcoming immigration debate will center around the requirements for legalization and on how the undocumented population will eventually become citizens. Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have suggested legalization but no citizenship, which is a nonstarter among Democrats. However, the process through which citizenship is obtained could be a place where both parties agree. It needs to be fair to those already waiting in line and yet doable for undocumented immigrants within their lifetimes.