In the absence of congressional action on any broad immigration reform, the election of President Barack Obama was expected to lead to changes in U.S. immigration policy at the executive level. Obama's first move was to select Janet Napolitano, then governor of Arizona, to run the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes the country's immigration agencies.
Over the year, Napolitano's direction for DHS became clear: put more pressure on employers to hire only those who are in the country legally, rather than conduct worksite raids; continue to work with state and local enforcement agencies but with a greater emphasis on finding the most dangerous criminal aliens; and move toward a civil immigrant-detention system and rely less on prisons that house convicted criminals.
These changes have meant bolstering the E-Verify system that checks worker eligibility against an online government database, ramping up employer audits, creating new 287(g) agreements that govern state/local immigration enforcement powers, and enlarging the Secure Communities program that checks the immigration status of individuals booked at state and local jails.
The process of transforming the detention system is just beginning and will take years.
Although immigration did not play a prominent role in the 2008 campaign, Obama courted Latino voters, who overwhelmingly supported him, proving critical in his victory in at least four states. Latino voters expected him to pursue immigration reform fairly early in his tenure. The president received plaudits from immigrant advocates when he signed a bill in February reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and expanding it to cover legal immigrant children.
But few were surprised that immigration was not a top-tier priority in the Obama administration's crowded legislative agenda. The economy and then health-care reform were clearly higher concerns. Still, Obama has periodically affirmed his commitment to immigration reform, and immigration became a contentious part of the health-care debate in late summer.
In June, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden discussed immigration reform with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders. Obama focused on three points: tightening border security, cracking down on employers that employ unauthorized immigrant workers, and recognizing the need to legalize unauthorized immigrants.
While meeting with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts in August, Obama promised to have an immigration reform package ready by the end of 2009 but made clear it would likely remain on the back burner until 2010.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who heads the Senate's immigration subcommittee, said in June that he would introduce a bill this year; most likely political constraints have forced him to wait. In the meantime, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) is expected to introduce Congressional Hispanic Caucus-backed legislation before the end of 2009.
In terms of the health-care debate, both the president and Congress agreed that unauthorized immigrants should not be eligible for new benefits. Instead, members have split on a number of other issues, including the extent to which legal immigrants should be eligible to participate in government-subsidized programs.
As the year draws to a close, Congress is working to finalize the health-care bill, and Obama is talking about jobs and the economy. Napolitano, in her mid-November remarks about the needs for immigration reform, was clear about the administration's current position: "When Congress is ready to act, we will be ready to support them."