The bipartisan Gang of Eight -- four Republican and four Democratic senators -- has been working on what could be the blueprint for broad reform that includes, among other things, a path for the more than 11 million undocumented people now in the United States to reach legal status, as well as calls for improving border security.
Obama used the swearing-in ceremony of 28 new U.S. citizens at the White House Monday to urge Congress to "finish the job" of overhauling immigration laws.
"Immigration makes us stronger," Obama said. "We've known for years that our immigration system is broken. ... After avoiding the problem for years, the time has come to fix it once and for all."
Immigration reform has been a flashpoint issue raising hackles for both parties in Congress and several administrations. And this congressional session is no different.
The Senate's bipartisan deal on immigration could stall because of a dispute over a new guest-worker program, exposing major differences between interest groups crucial to the overhaul's success, The Washington Post reported.
At issue? Rules governing the "future flow" of migrants who come to the United States for low-paying jobs. Citing business interests, Republicans want to give temporary work visas to as many as 400,000 mostly minimum-wage foreign workers a year. But unions -- and Democrats -- say they're concerned about the impact on U.S. workers and they want fewer foreign workers and higher pay under the program.
The senators' efforts also would eliminate some categories of visas for extended family members, people familiar with the negotiations told the Post.
Still, now seems the most likely time to get something done on immigration reform -- and the reasons go beyond the prominence of the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election and how the vote broke overwhelmingly Democratic.
"Something else changed," said Katherine Fennelly, an immigration specialist at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. "It's the strength and strengthening of some of the advocates and coalitions that are speaking more with one voice than they have in past."
Even with labor-based disagreements about the guest worker program, "there's still conversation and these groups are speaking much more with one voice than the past," Fennelly said.
This increased camaraderie has been noticed by the Senate, she said. And the House is watching to see how much bipartisanship the Senate's blueprint actually garners when it becomes legislation.
Also, there are the 2014 mid-term elections to consider.
Congress has to get "some movement, some kind of resolution, before it get too close to election," she said, noting that she wouldn't have believed such a statement was possible as recently as October, when she and others analyzed votes on immigration going back to 1993 and found that most were procedural issues or one party blocked proposals made by the other party.
"We need comprehensive immigration reform, not piecemeal legislation," Fennelly said. "People disagree about what the nature of the change should be but almost no one disagrees that we have a broken system."
Among other things, generally, the legislation must address a shortage of workers in certain industries; look at the millions of undocumented workers and their families, the U.S. economy and "our loftier goals," she said.
Lawmakers should take their cue from faith groups, she said, because they include core values that "need to be reflected in our federal policies" but often are overwhelmed by economic concerns.
Addressing modernizing existing law, Fennelly said it was "essential" to address the sometimes decades-long delay in bringing family members to the United States.
"That's just insane," she said. "Who can be separated that long?"
Asked about what issues also should be considered, Fennelly said some topics need more attention than they've been given so far the immigration debate, such as opportunities for more refugees to come to America. Also, helping immigrants integrate into the American way of life is important, she said.
Another area deserving more discussion is underemployment at various levels, as well as training programs and better credentialing programs.
"We have the cliche of the cab driver who's an engineer and that has a lot of truth," she said.
Finally, "We've got to stop putting immigrants into detention for violating immigration status," she said, noting that many institutions aren't meeting voluntary standards for detention and some reportedly are abusing immigrants.
"Really, though, the most successful bill would be broader in scope and let the details be developed later," Fennelly said.
The Small Business Majority said its recent survey indicated nearly 9-in-10 small business owners believe the current immigration system isn't working.
"Our primary job creators agree something must be done because immigration is good for America and good for small business," the Small Business Majority report said.
Across all industries and political persuasions, small-business owners said they recognize that without comprehensive immigration reform, U.S. small businesses and the economy cannot maximize job creation or revenue generation, the SMB survey said.
Eighty-four percent of small-business owners said they support the Gang of Eight's work.
Two-thirds of respondents also agree immigration reform would be good for small businesses by establishing a qualified, trained and stable work force, the survey indicated. Another two-thirds said they believe immigrant entrepreneurs drive new business growth.
"This is an exciting time," Fennelly said.
She said when she teaches a class or otherwise discusses immigration she talks about what's headlining the news, such as demographic growth trends toward aging, and its relevance to immigration policies.
Developing a pool of workers to replace a retiring workforce can include new, young immigrants to help fill the need for "young workers who will be coming in and paying taxes and paying into system," she said.
"Sometimes," Fennelli said, "we have parallel conversations without seeing the overlap."
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