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Is Immigration Reform on the Way?
Within days of his second inauguration, President Obama began a strong push for immigration reform.

By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 3/1/2013

                Talk of immigration reform has been going on for years. But now, many in Washington believe that comprehensive immigration reform is finally going to happen.

                Within days of his second inauguration, President Obama began a strong push for immigration reform.

                “And if Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away,” Obama said in one of his first post-inauguration speeches.

                The day before Obama’s made this announcement, a bipartisan group of senators that has been working toward immigration reform for some time released a framework of principles that they want included. Much of what they want mirrors President Obama’s wish list. Both want to see the following things included:

                • A focus on enforcement, including strengthening border security, implementing a national employment eligibility verification system, and cracking down more forcefully on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers,

                • A fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States,

                • Reform the legal immigration system to include keeping families together and making it easier for workers that can help the U.S. economy to enter and stay in the country.

                Currently, there are an estimated 11 million individuals who are illegally living in the United States. Many expect the biggest debate to occur over how these undocumented immigrants gain access to citizenship. But despite this and other differences, a number of factors make the passing of broad immigration reform a real possibility this year.

                For starters, the presidential election was a referendum on the need for immigration reform to the Republican Party. Candidate Mitt Romney took a strong stance on immigration that had some calling him “anti-immigration,” a contrast to Obama’s stance which some have said goes as far as favoring undocumented workers over citizens. But when over 70% of Latino voters cast their ballot for Obama, the Republican Party took notice. Add to that the fact that the number of Latino voters is growing in number as the American-born children of many illegal immigrants reach adulthood, and it is not something that can be ignored any longer.

                “The politics of the issue have changed, and changed dramatically,” said Republican Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). “If you look at the polls when it comes to immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for certain immigrants without papers, the American people are there. Americans support it, and it’s the right thing to do.”

                There are now many discussions going on in Congress across party lines. And if Republicans are willing to move forward, the Democrats had better keep it moving forward. With a democratic controlled Senate and White House, the pressure is on them to deliver on something that they have been promising for a long time.

                Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chair of the immigration task force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has been working on immigration reform for close to 20 years and is optimistic that there is a chance to see immigration reform happen this time around.

                “All of the pieces are falling into place,” said Gutierrez. “We have not signed on the dotted line, and some important details are yet to be resolved, but what we have now is momentum. Momentum, plus encouragement from the American people, the President, and immigrant and Latino communities, will get an immigration bill across the finish line this year.”

                “The sense is that this is a rare opportunity when the politics, the policies, the two parties’ and their goals are lining up where this is possible,” said Doug Rivlin, press secretary for Congressman Gutierrez. “It’s not all that easy to get Republicans and Democrats in the same place, especially if they are fighting on other issues. But on immigration there’s a lot of common ground.”

                Immigration and illegal workers are familiar issues in the pallet and wood industries. In the decade since the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency was established, the industry has felt like a favorite target for worksite raids by the agency. From the high profile raids of IFCO several years ago to much smaller companies, multiple industry members have dealt with investigations, penalties and some criminal charges. For this reason, many industry members are watching the progress in Washington closely to see what impact it could have on them. 

                Interestingly, a pallet company in the Chicago area has become a sort of immigration reform rallying point for some in the Latino community after nearly 30 workers were arrested last November. Neither ICE nor the pallet company returned calls for comment. But according to news reports, workers at Chicago Pallet Service were discovered to be in the country illegally during the course of a separate investigation. The workers were all released on bond following rallies and the involvement of Senator Gutierrez, but many still face deportation.

                No one knows what will actually end up in the legislative text of any bills introduced in Congress. Many in the pallet and lumber industries are hoping that reforms will level the playing field without adding unnecessary burdens.

                At this point it looks like the main focal areas for the industry are the employment eligibility verification system and any employer-related enforcement. While having a system that verifies the eligibility of workers sounds like a good idea, it could result in a lot of burdensome paperwork for employers. And with increased enforcement and penalties, hiring illegal workers, even unknowingly, will be an even bigger risk for employers. This could result in some businesses walking a thin line between trying to avoid hiring anyone who appears to have the possibility of not being eligible to work in the United States while also avoiding lawsuits for employment discrimination.

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