By Maria Peņa
WASHINGTON -- Immigrant-advocacy groups said Wednesday that President-elect Barack Obama's appointment of scholar Tino Cuellar to head a policy working group on immigration will help reignite debate on that contentious issue in 2009.
Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, a law professor at Stanford University, is known for his pragmatism and sensitivity toward the subject and his appointment this week confirms, according to experts consulted Wednesday by Efe, that the incoming administration is committed to comprehensive immigration reform.
An immigration reform bill stalled in the Senate in 2007 due to a lack of political consensus on some of its components and because President George W. Bush lacked sufficient political capital to influence the conservative wing of his party.
Cuellar advised Obama during the election campaign and will head - along with Georgetown University law professor T. Alexander Aleinikoff - one of the seven working groups that will draw up policy priorities for Obama's first few months as president.
The 36-year-old Cuellar - who was raised in Calexico, a California town near the Mexican border - has extensive knowledge about issues related to trade, economic development and the impact of migratory flows, the immigration experts told Efe.
He obtained his bachelor's degree at Harvard and then went on to Yale Law School. He later earned a PhD in political science at Stanford and since 2001 has been a member of the law faculty at that institution, where his research has been focused on how organizations manage complex regulatory, migration, international security and criminal justice problems.
"Cuellar is a good choice and we think that this time reason will win out over the toxic rhetoric of groups that have tried to inject fear into the electorate about immigrants," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza, the country's largest Hispanic civil rights organization.
"He's very pragmatic and, although the economy is the United States' top priority at this time, we think that in the end people will recognize that sensible immigration policy also will be good for our economy," she said.
Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, added that Cuellar offers "a balanced and objective perspective" on the issue of immigration reform.
"His appointment makes it clear that Obama continues to support reform. The broken immigration system has to be fixed and we hope that in 2009 Congress doesn't give in to pressure from rabid anti-immigrant groups," Wilkes said.
He stressed that another reform bill like the one that stalled in 2007 and which would have put millions of illegal migrants on a path to citizenship would not constitute "amnesty" because beneficiaries would have to meet a series of requirements such as paying owed taxes and a fine, and undergoing background and health checks. Measures would also be adopted to strengthen border security.
Frank Sharry, president of the group America's Voice, said he is "optimistic that the reform will go forward, perhaps not in the first 100 days of the Obama government but realistically in 12 to 15 months."
Sharry said he is optimistic about the appointment of Cuellar, as well as Obama's expected choice of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security and his naming of the pro-reform Cecilia Muņoz as the White House's director of intergovernmental affairs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev), for his part, told the Gannett News Service last weekend that Obama and his defeated rival, Republican John McCain, agreed to push ahead with the immigration debate "and that's what we'll do."
During an immigration forum in September 2007, Cuellar said the illegal immigration problem is "a humanitarian crisis that we've ignored" and one that deserves an appropriate response.
Immigration-advocacy groups are now hopeful that Cuellar will be a key player in the search for solutions. EFE
Professor Cuellar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .