Obama Administration to Focus on Immigration Reform

Consistent with President Barack Obama’s pledge to immigrant groups during his election campaign last year, the Obama Administration has revealed that discussions will begin as early as May for possible comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the Fall. On April 8, 2009, the Obama Administration stated that it plans to address the issue this year, despite political pressure to safeguard jobs for American workers in the current recession.

According to Cecilia Muñoz, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, the Administration will seek to establish “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system.” The Administration does not expect its plan to affect the current recession or unemployment rates, or add new workers to the American workforce. Instead, the White House hopes the plan would recognize millions of illegal immigrants already present in the United States. Moreover, the Administration expects to favor legislation that would bring undocumented immigrants into the legal system by recognizing the violation of immigration laws, and imposing fines and other appropriate penalties.

Although officials have stated that the Administration’s plan has not been finalized, they revealed that undocumented immigrants would be require to register with the government and satisfy certain additional requirements, including the payment of income taxes and government fines, successful completion of criminal background checks, and proficiency in English. The anticipated legislation also would seek to prevent future illegal immigration by strengthening border enforcement operations and increasing scrutiny on employers who hire illegal immigrants, while creating a national system for verifying the immigrant status of new workers.

Prior to Ms. Muñoz’s statements, President Obama had commented on his administration’s commitment to immigration reform. In a town hall meeting in Costa Mesa, California, held on March 18, 2009, the President stressed that immigrants who are long-time residents but lack legal status “have to have some mechanism over time to get out of the shadows.”

The President is expected to receive significant support from labor unions in overhauling the current immigration system. The nation’s two largest labor federations, the A.F.L-C.I.O and Change to Win, have joined forces to endorse their own plan, which is similar to the Administration’s. The unions’ plan would legalize undocumented immigrants already in the United States. It opposes any large new program that would allow employers to bring in additional workers. The unions would endorse the creation of a national commission to manage future workers by determining how many permanent and temporary immigrant workers should be admitted based on demand in American labor markets.

Employers should recognize some similarities here to the failed 2007 immigration reform effort supported by the Bush Administration. Comprehensive immigration reform is highly politicized. The attorneys of the Jackson Lewis Global Immigration Practice Group are available to answer your questions about this development and will continue to monitor and provide updates on this issue.