The energy in Washington changes as soon as Congress returns from recess, and this year the air is particularly charged with anticipation of the health care reform debate to come. In the immigration world, we are watching the debate as a barometer of what to expect later in the session when the long-promised Schumer bill is introduced.

The timing of the next round of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) legislation has always been contingent on the Obama administration’s ability to successfully manage, at a minimum, the health care and probably, the climate change debates. As health care, in particular, has grown increasingly complex, partisan, and ideological, the chances of completing CIR legislation before 2009 ends further diminish. That’s not to say, however, that nothing is happening. Behind the scenes work on immigration reform is taking place daily, as this summer’s developments demonstrate.

  • A more engaged White House. Although the President has consistently stated his support for comprehensive immigration reform, the public worried about the relative silence from the White House during the first few months of the administration. In June, the President hosted a bipartisan gathering of Members of Congress to discuss the prospects for immigration reform, committing to working with Congress to set legislation in motion. Obama named DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to head a working group that has been quietly meeting to discuss a range of issues that should be included in legislation. The “quiet” nature of those meetings, however, led to more frustration in the advocacy world, as it continued to appear that little was happening. In August, the White House brought together about 130 stakeholders to discuss key issues such as 287(g), legalization, employment verification, and promoting citizenship. The response to that meeting, attended by both Napolitano and Obama, has been generally positive.
  • More activity and outreach within DHS. In addition to the Napolitano initiative, DHS has been quietly gathering its forces, beefing up its immigration staff and working closely with career government employees to make reform a reality. Career folks within DHS have long recommended that any major legalization program focus on efficient and simple enrollment and participation requirements, something which jibes with the calls of the immigration community. Involving more of the experts inside and outside the government appears to be part of the outreach strategy DHS is using to craft its legislative plan—a welcome change from the more secretive approach on immigration we saw during the Bush administration.
  • More activity on the Hill. Senator Schumer has moved from talking about broad principles to meeting with stakeholders to bill drafting over the summer. While he had promised a bill or at least an outline by Labor Day, he recently announced that the bill would take longer. It has been widely reported that South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham will co-sponsor legislation, and behind the scenes negotiations continue in order to bring other Republicans and Democrats onto a bill. Unlike the 2007 debate, we anticipate that the Senate bill would go through “regular order” with a full Judiciary Committee hearing where, ideally, the vast majority of contentious issues would be resolved. House leadership has indicated it does not want to move faster than the Senate, but public impatience and the appearance of a vacuum in the House could change that dynamic if it appears that Senator Schumer cannot deliver a bill before the end of the year.

So, the work is happening. Although the President has prioritized immigration reform after completing work on health care, energy and financial regulation, stranger things have happened in the world of politics—where the static electricity generated by Congress can change the political weather in a manner of days.