Religious and labor leaders called upon Congress and President-elect Obama to pass a comprehensive immigration package this year and said that the U.S. economy could not be restored without legalizing the nation's undocumented immigrants.
"Immigration reform is a necessity in order to fix the American economy," John Wilhelm, president of Unite Here's hospitality-industry division, said Thursday during a national teleconference call on immigration reform. The New York-based group represents more than 450,000 workers around the U.S.
Wilhelm said immigration legislation would help the recovery by eliminating exploitation, increasing wages and tax compliance and placing all workers on a level playing field.
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has been an outspoken proponent of legalization, said immigration is a humanitarian and moral issue but also an economic issue.
"Immigrants must be brought out of the shadows so they can fully contribute to our nation's future economic and social well-being," he said.
The participants in Thursday's call said they believed that the topic would be debated in Congress this fall and that legislation could come up for a vote in early 2010. They cited Obama's campaign pledge to address immigration reform and said that members of Congress and of Obama's transition team have indicated that it is a priority. They acknowledged, however, that no specific commitment had been made or timetable set.
But anti-illegal immigration advocates urged the U.S. government this week to curtail legal immigration in response to the economic crisis.
"With the federal government reporting continuing giant losses of jobs, it is time to slow the massive importation of workers," Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, wrote in a letter this week to Obama. "How can it make any sense for the American people's own government to be approving more competitors for a dwindling number of jobs?"
Since immigration reform failed in 2007, the U.S. government has focused resources on rooting out unauthorized workers at businesses, shoring up the border with Mexico and arresting illegal immigrants who have committed crimes or ignored deportation orders.
Immigrant rights advocates say enforcement tactics are inhumane and ineffective.
"The sense of urgency in the community has never been stronger," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza. "Families are being torn apart, people are afraid of going to the police when they are preyed upon."
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, said he recognized that economic recovery is the most important priority for the country, the Congress and the new administration. But he said immigration should follow soon after.