During Monday’s inaugural address, President Barack Obama reiterated his call for comprehensive immigration reform, legislation that might gain support from conservative evangelical leaders.
Last weekend, the New York Times “leaked” details of the president’s proposed legislation. The bill would include a way for most of the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants to gain citizenship, an outcome advocated by the recently formed Evangelical Immigration Table.
The president’s proposal would provide a kind of temporary amnesty to illegal immigrants, allowing them to work their way to full legal citizenship. The White House claims its solution is not amnesty, as some critics have labeled it. The new law would include fines, the payment of back taxes, and other penalties for illegal immigrants trying to gain legal status, officials said. The plan also would impose nationwide verification of legal status for all newly hired workers, add visas to relieve backlogs, and allow highly skilled immigrants to stay. It also would create a form of guest-worker program to bring in low-wage immigrants later on.
Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family and executive director of Citizen Link, the group’s lobbying arm, said he would wait to see further details on the legislation before offering his support. But he hopes the bill will focus more on what the economy needs and less on politics.
“We want to see worker visas expanded to fill the jobs that are available,” he said. “Right now it's political—we want to see it based on actual labor needs in this country.”
Minnery also said he hoped the bill would hold employers accountable for hiring illegal immigrants: “Only the employee is held accountable when he gets caught. We would like to see uniform enforcement of employment laws.”
The president is recommending the changes all be addressed in one massive legislative package, instead of in separate bills that address different issues, as some Republican members of congress have suggested. A bipartisan group of senators is working to write the comprehensive bill. The goal is to introduce legislation as early as March and hold a vote in the Senate before August. Policy analysts speculate the president will announce the bill to the public soon, maybe in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12.
During his last term, the president tried and failed to introduce bipartisan legislation on immigration, but Republicans are now more willing to work on the issue, with November election losses fresh in their minds.
“This is so important now to both parties that neither the fiscal cliff nor guns will get in the way,” Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democrat leading the bipartisan discussions, told the Times.
But a high unemployment rate that has left 23 million Americans without full-time work could threaten the bill’s future. A Gallup poll released Dec. 20 showed only 2 percent of respondents believe immigration is “the most important problem facing this country.” But 40 percent of respondents cited the economy and unemployment together as the most important issue.
Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a leader of the Evangelical Immigration Table, told me he is moderately encouraged by what the president intends to do.
The Evangelical Immigration Table calls for a bipartisan solution to the “unacceptable political stalemate” that respects the God-given dignity of every person, protects the unity of the immediate family, respects the rule of law, guarantees secure national borders, ensures fairness to taxpayers, and establishes a path toward legal status or citizenship for those who qualify.
“This bill sounds like it's what we have been calling for,” Land said. “The president talks about the fact that it's not amnesty—it includes fines, requires documentation. They need to have a grace period, undergo a background check, and pay a fine.
“It looks to me like the core of legislation that both parties can support is in the president’s bill, so I'm encouraged. I think it is awfully important to get this done this year. If not, I think it will wait until after the next presidential election.”