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An immigration reform bill, or more gridlock?

President Barack Obama recently reignited the immigration debate when he told reporters that congressional leaders of both parties were ready to "start working on this thing right now."

The conventional wisdom is that the longer Obama waits, the harder it will be to pass any immigration reform legislation.

One immigration activist I spoke with even had a deadline in mind: March. His thinking is that the 2010 midterm elections might cut into the Democratic majority in Congress, and then the chance for reform could slip away.

Such reasoning assumes that Republicans are the main obstacle to reform. Yet Republicans are under a lot of pressure from business groups to fix the immigration system so companies can more easily hire workers. As for Democrats, the last time Congress fumbled the chance at reform, in 2007, they were the ones carrying the ball.

In this go around, it is the Democrats -- specifically, Blue Dog Democrats -- that Obama has to worry about most. An estimated 40 House Democrats are thought to be either too conservative to support a pathway for illegal immigrants to become legal, or at risk of losing their seats if they vote for such a measure.

This makes it all the more important that Obama win over at least some Republican votes.

But the problem harkens back to why Democrats had trouble passing reform two years ago. The Democratic Party is beholden to organized labor, which supports immigration reform but continues to resist the idea of allowing businesses -- as part of the bargain -- to import into the United States hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers.

Guest workers: In 2007, Democrats were caught in a tough spot between trying to please Latino voters who wanted immigration reform and unions willing to kill the deal if they couldn't manage to remove the language on guest workers. This time, Democrats are prepared to propose legislation that only focuses on enhanced border enforcement and a pathway to legalization.

This was the take from a speech that Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York -- the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration -- gave last month at an event sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. Schumer is going to write the immigration bill. And in laying out what he considered to be key elements, he omitted any reference to guest workers. Yet if guest workers are off the menu, don't expect Republicans to sit down at the table.

Didn't I say earlier that Obama needs Republican votes because he can expect to lose a big chunk of Democratic support? So Schumer would be foolish not to throw the GOP a bone on this one.

Yet should guest worker language get in, you can expect organized labor to put the screws to Democrats again to oppose the bill. Before you know it, we're back where we started: with a broken immigration system and a Congress that doesn't have the skills or the guts to fix it.

And they call this reform?

THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE

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