The President Drops by to Tout Immigration Reform

I’m back at my desk after a meeting this afternoon at the White House on comprehensive immigration reform. [For small fish like me, “the White House” never means the Oval Office or the West Wing but the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door.] The meeting was presided over by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and included about 100 representatives of groups interested in reforming the current system. It also featured a surprise guest speaker.

The meeting began with Secretary Napolitano expressing the administration’s commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, a goal that I have been advocating for several years. The phrase has come to mean legalization of low-skilled immigrants, both those already living here illegally and future inflows of workers, with the promise of more vigorous enforcement against remaining illegal immigrants and those who hire them.

After the secretary’s opening remarks we broke up into smaller roundtable discussions of about 15 people each moderated by DHS officials. In our group I made the point that any reform worthy of the name must include a temporary worker program with a sufficient number of visas to meet the future labor-force needs of our economy. I invited those around the table to read our latest study, “Restriction or Legalization?: Measuring the Benefits of Immigration Reform,” that finds significant income gains ($180 billion, anyone?) for U.S. households from legalization.

After the roundtables, we reconvened in the auditorium where the secretary began to summarize the main points discussed in the breakouts groups. Then, with the usual bodyguard of Secret Service agents, President Obama entered the auditorium and strode to the podium about 20 feet from where I was sitting.

Speaking in generalities, the president said his administration is committed to an immigration policy that is true to “our history as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.” He said he had attended a “terrific bipartisan meeting” on immigration reform that included Republican Senators John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Jeff Sessions (AL). The president said we need “a legislative solution to a broken immigrant system,” which I interpreted hopefully to be an acknowledgment that ramped up enforcement alone will not solve illegal immigration. He concluded by saying, “Immigration is a problem begging to be fixed.”

For those of us who want to legalize low-skilled immigrant labor, President Obama’s words were short on specifics but they were mostly pointing in the right direction. According to other people at the meeting, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has said the committee will mark up and vote on an immigration reform bill sometime after returning from the August recess, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will schedule a floor debate and vote before the end of the year. Perhaps the third attempt at passing comprehensive immigration reform will be a success after failed efforts in 2006 and 2007.

Stay tuned.