WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will be watched closely this week for a sign of his intentions, not on health care, job creation or financial regulation, but on a hot issue he put on the back burner for the past year: immigration.
Immigrant advocates who met with Obama Thursday say he committed to publicly backing action this year on "comprehensive immigration reform" and to possibly supporting the framework for a Senate bill this week - ahead of a march on Washington by Latinos and other immigrants next Sunday.
"Part of the meeting was giving him a real heads up, that the moment of truth for us is March 21," the date of the march, said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition and a meeting participant.
Success this year in doubt
Many in Washington doubt the success of an immigration bill this year, as the House enters the critical endgame week on health care amid partisan battles in Congress as its members look toward campaigning for re-election this fall.
"There is just not a whole lot of political courage out there," said one immigration lobbyist. "That said, there is not a lot of political calendar time."
But with an eye on his political base, Obama appears poised to launch an ambitious agenda after the health care vote, with immigration and climate change on the card behind top priorities of job creation and financial regulation.
As if to underline the point, Obama publicized his White House meetings Thursday with immigrant advocates, co-sponsors of a Senate immigration bill and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He later issued a statement of his "unwavering support" for an overhaul bill.
Obama said his aides are weighing it and it could be made public this week.
Schumer said a bill could be passed this year. "It's a rough road, but it's possible," he said. He has been working with immigrant advocates, business and labor to address the kinds of difficult details that ultimately sank the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill two years ago.
"Why our bill will succeed, in our judgment, is because we're much tougher on illegal immigration than previous bills," Schumer said. But Schumer said Obama needs to settle differences between business and labor on temporary workers. Graham warned Democrats against using a parliamentary maneuver to pass health care, saying it could doom GOP support.
Both said Obama must take the lead to persuade Republicans to join Graham, the lone Republican co-sponsor. Obama said the bill won't pass without bipartisan support.
While the Senate will take the lead, the House already has a bill. Co-sponsor Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said it's time to act. Last Tuesday, he joined federal immigration enforcement agents for a tour of Huntington Station, and saw immigrants lining New York Avenue.
"That's a bad deal if you are living in Huntington Station and it's a bad deal if you are standing on the street waiting for a landscaper to pick you up for a job," Israel said.
Latino groups angry
Latino and other immigrant groups said they are angry and disappointed with Obama for failing to fulfill his campaign promise of bringing up an immigration bill in his first year in office - while his administration boasts of deporting more illegal immigrants than ever before.
That anger has led some, including Tom Saenz, director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, to declare that it's time to go ahead and pass pieces of a comprehensive bill - such as college aid and temporary agriculture worker permits.
Schumer said, however, only a comprehensive bill would preserve broad bipartisan support, and top immigrant advocates agreed.
Still, they score Obama for his virtual silence on immigration, and asserted they would bring 100,000 people to Washington to demand action.
Several buses will take marchers from Long Island, said Luis Valenzuela, director of the Long Island Immigrants Alliance. Marchers intend "to give the administration the certainty they have to move forward with immigration," he said. "We want real leadership."
Key points of immigration reform
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate's point man on immigration, has outlined seven principles for comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation:
1. Dramatically curtail illegal immigration.
2. Control U.S. borders within a year of legislation enactment.
3. Create biometric-card employer verification system.
4. Require undocumented immigrants in U.S. to register for path to citizenship or face deportation.
5. Create more room for family reunification.
6. Encourage highly skilled immigrants to come here and discourage businesses from importing low-paid foreign labor.
7. Control flow of low-skilled undocumented immigrants based on economy.