Commentary: With Fiscal Cliff Averted, Is Congress Ready to Tackle Immigration Reform?

When will the new Congress take up immigration reform? (Photo: www.flickr.com/photos/katieharbath/)

During an interview with David Gregory last Sunday, President Obama reiterated his commitment to immigration reform. “That’s something we should get done,” the president told the NBC host.

But can our elected officials actually get it done? Somehow, they did manage to stop themselves from pushing all of us over the fiscal cliff. Does this mean that they will be able to prioritize immigration reform as promised by party leaders?

Elise Foley and Sam Stein of the Huffington Post report that the Obama administration will push for legislative action this month. But legislation is not crafted overnight. A substantive bill can take months to write, especially a bipartisan one. The Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” led by Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have started work on a comprehensive immigration bill, but they are in the early stages. Even if they do manage to introduce one within the next few weeks, there are no guarantees that Congress will take up the bill. While a fiscal cliff deal was reached, sequestration and the debt ceiling will have to be dealt with two months from now. Then the federal budget within three months. Not to mention gun control.

In short, immigration legislation may very well stew for some time before being debated, voted, and eventually passed.

The president’s role in advancing immigration reform is therefore pivotal, his leadership imperative. Will he lead Congress or will he be led by Congress?

Muzaffar Chishti, director the Migration Policy Institute’s New York Office told ABC News that the president “has to make it clear that he’ll use his bully pulpit and his political muscle to make it happen, and he has to be open to using his veto power.”

David Gregory rightfully points out that the president’s political capital is limited. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Obama manages the upcoming battles over the competing legislative priorities.

Even if the president does put the full weight of his office behind immigration reform, it will be countered by inertia and intransigence in Congress. He chose his words well in only promising that legislation will be introduced this year. It will be up to our representatives to do their job and once and for all fix our immigration system.

With the mid-term congressional elections already on the horizon, it only makes sense for lawmakers to do all they can to pass comprehensive immigration reform. After all, they will need the votes of ascendant Latinos, Asians, and other immigrant groups for whom immigration is a very, very important issue.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.