By Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Xinhua) -- Despite focused resolve to repair the ailing economy, U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to tackle the hot issue of immigration reform somewhat sooner than most expected.
There are currently around 12 million undocumented workers in the United States, according to official estimates, and what to do about them has been a long-standing bitter debate. One side has called for a path toward citizenship, while the other favors tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
Obama's preliminary plan includes provisions for securing borders, cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers and increasing the number of legal immigrants. It also seeks to help Mexico develop economically, in order to reduce the number of Mexicans who need to cross into the United States to find jobs.
Obama said in a recent speech that he wanted to enact reform, and a bill could come as early as fall. "I see the process moving this first year," he said.
Some are skeptical of this timetable, however, saying the administration has too much on its plate, such as the economy and health care. John Fonte, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, speculated that it could take up to 18 months, or longer, for a discussion to begin.
But whenever the debate kicks off, it is sure to be just as heated as the one two years ago, which saw major demonstrations in cities across the United States. And this time the president will also have to contend with unskilled American workers' fears that cheaper immigrant labor could replace them in an ailing economy.
In June 2007, Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., sponsored legislation promising both stricter enforcement and eventual citizenship for those living illegally in the United States. But despite support from former president George W. Bush, the bill failed in the Senate.
This time, however, Obama's popularity may help push a bill through, some experts said.
On some points of his plan, such as more secure borders, Obama will find plenty of public support, said Bryan Griffith, spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies.
But one provision, which calls for undocumented workers to be allowed to pay a fine and "go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens," is sure to draw fire.
Opponents say illegal immigrants should not be rewarded for breaking the law. And legal immigrants, who have slogged through years of red tape and paid thousands of dollars in lawyers' fees, say mass amnesty amounts to punishment for those who play by the rules.
The Center for Immigration Studies said the plan will draw criticism from constituents as well. Obama will "waste political capital and have nothing to show for it at the end of his term," the organization said in a statement.
If amnesty does occur, however, immigration services, which receive little federal funding, would be overwhelmed and under-funded for the massive influx of paperwork the plan would create, Griffith said. There are already millions of people on the waiting list and amnesty would add millions more.
Other experts said immigration services could handle the extra work and expenses if they started planning now.
The debate is also likely to include the subject of taxes.
Griffith said illegal immigrants currently consume more in services, such as public schools and hospitals, than they pay into government coffers.
Other experts say second generation immigrants would eventually add to tax rolls, as a typical immigrant family increases its wages after the first generation.
Don Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said there was currently a mismatch between illegal immigrants and how state and federal taxes were levied upon them. Many are taxed at the federal level some estimates put contributions in the billions but pay nothing to states, whose services they use the most.
Another item comprising the debate will be the disconnection between the present immigration system and the nation's economic needs.
Because of current economic woes, Congress should focus on inviting highly skilled, higher-wage workers who would increase the tax base and whose earnings would enable them to purchase new homes and cars. Consumer spending of this kind would boost the economy, economists said.
But despite extraordinary demand in past years for these immigrants, H-1B visas -- temporary visas for skilled workers -- are unlikely to increase, officials said. That will disappoint technology firms who say they need more software designers and engineers from overseas. Technology companies have lobbied to increase the limit -- currently 85,000 per year -- as more such workers will be needed once the economy recovers, experts said.
Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, recently said at a Senate hearing that he was in favor of expanding the number of H-1B visas.
"The quantity of temporary H-1B visas issued each year is far too small to meet the need, especially in the near future as the economy copes with the forthcoming retirement wave of skilled baby-boomers," he said.