Immigration Reform Advocates Make Push as Health Care Debate Winds Down

Though Congress still has to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of legislation to revamp the nation's health care system, the next issue in line is already stepping forward in Washington and at the grassroots.

The week before Christmas, a coalition of lawmakers unveiled a new reform bill that seeks to legalize undocumented immigrants by requiring them to register with the federal government, pay a $500 fine for each adult, learn English, pass background checks and meet other requirements before becoming eligible for a six-year visa that can eventually lead to a green card.

Though there is some skepticism over whether Congress will be willing to take up immigration reform early next year so soon after a tough health care debate, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has become a leader of a multiethnic coalition of immigration reform backers, said the plan right now is to get ready "so when they are done with their work, we can quickly act."

"[T]he patience, and the tolerance, and the dignity of our immigrant community has brought us to this moment - to this bill, to this final push for comprehensive reform," commented Gutierrez at a press conference introducing the bill.

"This bill is the right way to allow these people to reach their dreams," he added. "We've waited too long."

President Obama has said he expects to take up the immigration issue after the health care debate is over and Congress finishes work on energy reforms and regulating financial markets – potentially driving the debate close to midterm elections in November.

During the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in June, Obama committed to providing a way for millions of undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens while also strengthening border security.

He specifically noted that the "fair, practical and promising way forward" on the immigration issue is to require illegal immigrants to pay a penalty, pay taxes, learn English and "go to the back of the line behind those who played by the rules."

"The American people believe in immigration," he said. "But they also believe that we can't tolerate a situation where people come to the United States in violation of the law nor can we tolerate employers who exploit undocumented workers in order to drive down wages."

Though Obama's vow was welcomed by members of the Hispanic Christian community, Obama has yet to lay out a timeline for overhauling immigration.

Furthermore, with the U.S. economy still weak and recovery still slow, some say it might be premature to bring up immigration reform.

Supporters of the new bill, however, argue otherwise.

"For those who say that given the state of our economy, given the unemployment rate, this is not the time, I would say to you there is no wrong or right time. There is a moral obligation," commented Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, according to The Associated Press.

The newly unveiled legislation, sponsored so far by more than 80 House Democrats, is the culmination of months of discussions with community organizations, unions and other groups around the country in hopes of gaining enough momentum to get reforms passed.

A more moderate immigration bill, meanwhile, is expected to be introduced in the Senate next month, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) saying he hopes to launch a debate there during the first half of next year.

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