January is the season of crystal ball reading as we predict what to expect in 2009. For everyone concerned about immigration reform, the only thing certain is that Barak Obama will be sworn in as President on January 20th and that the Democrats have gained a significant number of seats in the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Those who reside in South Florida should be particularly concerned about plans for immigration reform. Out of the estimated twelve million undocumented immigrants in the United States, some 700,000 are in Florida, almost half in South Florida. The sheer magnitude of the number of illegal immigrants must be dealt with in order even to begin to address issues such as health care reform.

While nothing is certain, there seems to be consensus about certain expectations related to change in immigration policy and practice due to the sheer magnitude of the illegal immigrant population and the huge Obama vote by the Hispanic community. In a post-election review, Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen credited new immigrant voters, whom he estimated made up 40 percent of the 10 million-plus Latino vote in 2008, for helping sweep Obama into the White House. Immigrant voters played key or decisive roles in the swing states of Indiana, Virginia, Florida, Colorado and New Mexico, according to Bendixen, and immigration was the issue that politicized the immigrant community.

The economic crisis and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that no one in a leadership position is on record predicting passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill early in the administration, but an analysis of the statements of such immigration leaders as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. and Frank Sherry, head of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group, does lead to the following expectations.

  • The Dream Act. This legislation, which would allow children of illegal immigrants more access to college and citizenship, is one measure that could pass in the new Congress, as early as in 2009.
  • Family Reunification. Senator Menendez wants the Department of Homeland Security to release thousands of unissued immigrant visas from past years to be used to allow would-be immigrants to unite with family members already in the U.S. Menendez plans to push this measure when the new Congress convenes in January.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Raids and Mass Deportations. While Frank Sharry doesn’t expect a public announcement of the suspension of raids and mass deportations, he expects an Obama-led ICE agency might say instead it’s zeroing in on exploitative employers and targeting undocumented immigrants with serious rap sheets—with the same impact as suspension.
  • Administrative Matters. Areas of the system that can be improved without legislation include processing the backlog of visa and citizenship applications, the overwhelmed immigration courts, and an inadequate detention system for immigrant detainees.

What do we expect then for 2009? We predict no major or highly publicized immigration reform, but a “softening” of the environment to one more supportive of immigrant issues and more humane approaches to dealing with the undocumented. Little by little, the building blocks toward more comprehensive reform and approaches to defining a realistic path to citizenship for the millions of out-of-status will emerge. Whether seeking personal assistance with an immigration matter or not, members of the South Florida health care community have a vested interest in being advocates for immigration reform.

For now there remain the tried and true paths for legal residency, work authorization, family reunification and citizenship for individuals working in the health care industry and other sectors of the South Florida economy. They include the labor certification process, student visas, petitions based on extraordinary ability, actions under the Cuban Adjustment Act. The appropriate process to determine the best route is to engage a qualified attorney who can help shape an individual strategy.