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A range of details surround Obama's overhaul of immigration rules

Unable to win congressional reform of immigration in his first term, President Obama forced changes by fiat. He halted deportation of eligible youth. He prioritized enforcement against illegal immigrants who commit crimes over civil violators who just overstay visas.

Unable to win congressional reform of immigration in his first term, President Obama forced changes by fiat. He halted deportation of eligible youth. He prioritized enforcement against illegal immigrants who commit crimes over civil violators who just overstay visas.

Propelled to reelection on a wave of votes by naturalized Latinos, Obama soon will propose an omnibus overhaul of immigration law.

Its centerpiece: a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, including 160,000 in Pennsylvania and 550,000 in New Jersey.

"We want a long-term solution [for] undocumented members of our community, who in many cases are separated from their families," said Natasha Kelemen of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), an umbrella group of advocates.

"Keeping people in the underground economy . . . keeping parents separated from children, makes no sense morally or economically."

White House sources say Obama likely will present his initiative at Monday's inauguration.

Judi Bernstein Baker, director of the nonprofit legal-services group HIAS Pennsylvania, said "the only way to get permanent change" that doesn't depend on the occupant of the White House is through Congress.

In 2006, President George W. Bush championed a bill to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and fund 300 miles of tougher security on the border with Mexico. The legislation enjoyed limited bipartisan support but ultimately foundered after conservatives called amnesty a reward for lawbreakers, and liberals said the bill failed to provide enough "family reunification" visas.

The limited supply of those visas is a painful issue. When legal immigrants sponsor family members for immigration to America, they petition for the reunification visas, which usually are capped at about 225,000 a year. In many years, there are far more applicants than available visas, leading to backlogs that can stretch a decade or more.

In addition to Obama's anticipated plan, Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate and House are drafting various proposals.

Should there be a path to citizenship?

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration, thinks not.

"The previous big amnesty [in 1986] . . . was a colossal failure," he wrote in an article circulated by his Washington group. "We should admit fewer foreign workers, not more. . . . Amnesty is appropriate at this time only for illegal immigrants who've lived here since they were infants or toddlers."

One outspoken critic of illegal immigration, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) puts it more bluntly:

"Yet another betrayal of the American people by this president. You take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. Your responsibility is to the citizens of the United States, not to foreign nationals who have violated our borders, violated our laws."

Though a compromise is a long way off, immigrants who want legalization can expect common requirements: That they register with the federal government, submit to fingerprinting and a criminal background check, and pay processing fees and possibly fines.

Is legalization a strategy to add millions of voters who will presumably register as Democrats?

"That's pretty clearly one of the reasons, as well as wanting to integrate them into the United States," said Philadelphia lawyer James Orlow, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Among PICC participants are: Juntos, which represents Latinos; One Love Movement, representing Cambodians; and Boat People SOS, representing Vietnamese. All have offices in South Philadelphia.

"Latinos came out strong for Obama" to express their views and support their immigrant relatives who cannot vote, Juntos director Erika Almiron said.

Other big concerns, Kelemen said, are "reducing the [decades-long] backlog on family reunification petitions," and "ending the Secure Communities type [federal-local law enforcement partnerships], which undermine trust between local police and community groups."

Supporters of such partnerships say they extend the reach of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Private lawyers are watching Washington closely, too.

"When I tell people I am an immigration attorney, everyone has a story why the law needs to change," Djung Tran of Philadelphia said.

"Our native-born population is dropping.. . . We have an aging workforce. Who will support them? . . . We have to think about where we want immigration to go," she said. "Reuniting families? Bringing in workers to fill holes in our economy? That discussion has to happen."

Rather than tackle immigration issues piecemeal as Republicans have proposed, Obama wants a comprehensive bill.

"Democrats are worried they will lose on legalization [for the 11 million] if they agree to partial solutions," said Philadelphia lawyer Dave Bennion, who has defended illegal immigrants brought here as young children and known as Dreamers.

"I am glad Obama is taking a more aggressive approach," he said. But the tactic is a challenge because "House members . . . know they will get primaried by the Tea Party if they vote for a comprehensive bill."

Practically speaking, what does it mean to say the immigration system is "broken," as the president often does?

Amanda Bergson-Shilcock of the nonprofit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians makes a comparison to a motel.

"You drive up and see a line of doors. Behind one is a room. Behind another is a long hallway that winds and winds and eventually leads to a room. Behind a third door is a brick wall, you're blocked," she said.

"The door you get depends on which country you were born in. It's an accident of birth."

PICC has been meeting since November with its two dozen members to craft a pro-reform media campaign that it wants to launch later this month.

"If we are thinking we are going to get everything we need this time around, we are not," One Love Movement founder Mia-lia Kiernan predicted. "But we are ready to push back so we don't get thrown under the bus."