There's nearly unanimous, bipartisan agreement that the nation's immigration laws need fixing more than a quarter-century after the last overhaul.
Some 11 million immigrants live illegally in the U.S., many with no prospect of ever legalizing their status under current law. Notwithstanding Republican candidate Mitt Romney's call during the last presidential campaign for people here illegally to "self-deport," polls find even Republicans do not view mass deportation as a practical solution. Businesses from agriculture growers to high-tech companies to hotels and resorts are demanding a way to hire a steady supply of foreign workers legally, something they say can now be insurmountably difficult. Many take what can be the easy way out and hire workers here illegally instead. Deportations separate families, and millions wait overseas for years, even decades, as their applications for U.S. residency languish in backlogs. While the border is more secure than it was, it is still not secure enough to prevent illegal crossings and drug smuggling.
The campaign promise:
"I can promise that I will try to do it in the first year of my second term," President Barack Obama said of a comprehensive immigration overhaul during an interview with Univision in April 2012. "This is something I care deeply about. It's personal to me, and I will do everything that I can to try to get it done. But ultimately I'm going to need Congress to help me."
Congress and a succession of presidents have recognized the need to rework the nation's immigration laws. George W. Bush tried in his second term, working with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., among others. Their comprehensive legislation collapsed on the Senate floor in 2007 amid a fierce public backlash and interest group opposition. Obama himself promised to try to get it done in his first term. To the disappointment of Latino voters, he didn't deliver.
This time around, chances are a lot better Obama will make good on his promise to rewrite the nation's immigration laws to strengthen the border, crack down on employers, smooth legal immigration and provide eventual citizenship to people in the country illegally. But even after a bipartisan Senate group released legislation this week to accomplish those goals, success is still no sure thing.
And if Obama does end up signing a bill later this year or next, it won't be only because of his own efforts. Arguably the single biggest factor making the political climate ripe for change is a marked shift in attitude among Republican officeholders and voters after the 2012 elections, which saw Latino and Asian voters back Obama in record numbers, helping to seal his re-election.
That demonstrated to Republican leaders like McCain that the GOP had to confront the immigration issue or risk consigning itself to permanent minority status. The view is widespread enough among Republicans that it might help ease the legislation McCain produced with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and others through the Senate, possibly even the conservative-dominated House, though that's less certain.
Meanwhile, Obama has taken steps on his own to alleviate conditions for those in the U.S. illegally, who've complained about the record deportations under his administration. Most prominently, he announced last year that certain immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children would be protected from deportation for two years and allowed to work with legal status.
If a comprehensive immigration law fails, it's possible Obama could take more such steps. But he's said repeatedly that he needs Congress' help to enact the overhaul that the nation requires.
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