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Looking Ahead At Immigration Reform In 2013


President Obama says immigration reform will be a priority for the White House early next year. The last time Congress tried to tackle the divisive issue, it failed. In the meantime, states have become the center of debate following Arizona's lead in passing their own strict laws intended to curtail illegal immigration. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following the issue. She joins us now. Good morning, Debbie.


WERTHEIMER: We're now seeing immigration reform back on the national agenda, Debbie, presumably because of who lost and who won in the last election.

ELLIOTT: Exactly. Immigrants rights groups are definitely reinvigorated after President Obama's re-election. He had talked somewhat about wanting to tackle the immigration issue, didn't do it in his first term and would like to now that he has earned a second term. And since then, we've seen some prominent national Republicans, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, to name a few, saying, you know, the Republican Party has got to rethink its approach to the immigration debate, in part to engage Hispanic voters.

WERTHEIMER: Now, during the presidential campaign this year, Republican Mitt Romney embraced the state's hard-line approach. He said he would be so tough on illegal immigrants that they would self-deport. Do you think, in view of the way the election came out, that there is still Republican support for that approach?

ELLIOTT: You know, you don't hear that from national Republican leaders right now, but it's certainly still a sentiment out in the country. It's what they call attrition through enforcement, passing these laws that make it so hard for illegal immigrants to live and work in the state that they would leave. And a key proponent of that, in fact an architect of these state laws, is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

And I spoke with him recently about this moving to the national agenda now, and he said that will not stop him from pushing ahead in states and even local governments who want to make it tougher for illegal immigrants. And he thinks that GOP leaders are making a mistake.

KRIS KOBACH: Those national Republican leaders who are suggesting that Republicans should embrace amnesty are clearly out of touch with the grassroots of the party.

WERTHEIMER: Debbie, one of the things that states have reported, though, is that although these laws are working, they may be working too well for certain kinds of people like farmers, for example.

ELLIOTT: Right. There was a lot of discussion in Alabama and Georgia, in particular, agricultural states, where farmers said they, you know, had to leave fruit rotting in the fields because there was nobody there to harvest when the time came because of these new laws. Art Carden is an economics professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. It's a private Baptist college.

And he says leaders maybe didn't think about the unintended consequences of the law, which have really made it more difficult for everyone to do business.

ART CARDEN: Saying we want to be tough on immigration is ultimately an anti-growth policy, in part, because we have fewer people who can produce that growth. And then also I know another thing that's happened in Alabama and other states, is these compliance measures impose non-trivial burdens on businesses.

ELLIOTT: So those are the kinds of questions that I think are likely to surface as this debate moves to Capitol Hill.

WERTHEIMER: So what might be included in any sort of bipartisan legislation? What would be the approach?

ELLIOTT: We don't know what the approach will be, but certainly immigrants' rights groups want to see a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented residents who are already here. Advocates on the other side say you can't do anything before you secure the borders. Border enforcement has to come first. Republican Senator Rubio has said he favors doing this like one step at a time, piecemeal, and avoiding the big comprehensive package that came together in 2007 that ended up falling apart.

So those are the questions right now. There is a group working in the Senate, a so-called gang of eight, senators from both parties trying to come up with some common ground. And the president has said he'll have his own proposal sometime after the inauguration.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Debbie Elliott, thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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