The New York Times reports that Barack Obama will push for immigration reform, including legalizing illegal immigrants, as a top priority this year.  He expects plenty of pushback, and he’ll get it.  With America bleeding jobs at the moment and unemployment at 8.5% and rising, the sympathy for blessing those who drive wages downward will not flow easily.  But is Obama serious, or just pandering?

While acknowledging that the recession makes the political battle more difficult, President Obama plans to begin addressing the country’s immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.

Mr. Obama will frame the new effort — likely to rouse passions on all sides of the highly divisive issue — as “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system,” said the official, Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House.

Mr. Obama plans to speak publicly about the issue in May, administration officials said, and over the summer he will convene working groups, including lawmakers from both parties and a range of immigration groups, to begin discussing possible legislation for as early as this fall.

Some White House officials said that immigration would not take precedence over the health care and energy proposals that Mr. Obama has identified as priorities. But the timetable is consistent with pledges Mr. Obama made to Hispanic groups in last year’s campaign.

That priority list gives a clue about where immigration reform will wind up in 2009.  Congress has already told Obama that he can’t have both health-care reform and cap-and-trade in the same year.  If immigration reform gets prioritized below cap-and-trade, it won’t come up at all.

In fact, the kind of legalization process envisioned by Obama will be even less popular now than when it got derailed in 2007.  Two years ago, unemployment was low and the economy was humming along.  Some people bought into the “jobs Americans won’t do” argument.  Now, Americans want those jobs, and as a recent study shows, they can get better wages when the government does its job and enforces immigration law.  They’re not going to cheer while the people who crossed the border illegally and took jobs while driving wages down get rewarded for those efforts.

Obama may want to push this in 2009 in order to avoid doing it in an election year.  No matter what happens on immigration reform, it’s unlikely to increase anyone’s popularity.  We saw that in good economic times, and that will be doubly true in a recession.  While Obama may have that kind of political capital, Congress does not, especially the House.  Democrats elected in traditionally conservative districts will lose those seats in 2010 if they push Obama’s view of immigration reform, while Obama doesn’t have to face voters for another two years.  It could provide a game-changer for the mid-terms, and even Nancy Pelosi has to be smart enough to know that.

Addendum: The Times notes one House member who clearly doesn’t understand the concept of civil rights:

Anticipating opposition, Mr. Obama has sought to shift some of the political burden to advocates for immigrants, by encouraging them to build support among voters for when his proposal goes to Congress.

That is why Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, a Democrat from Mr. Obama’s hometown, Chicago, has been on the road most weekends since last December, traveling far outside his district to meetings in Hispanic churches, hoping to generate something like a civil rights movement in favor of broad immigration legislation.

Illegal immigrants do not have a “civil right” to normalization.  The Civil Rights Movement worked to protect the rights of American citizens that had been denied through state and federal government action and inaction.  No foreigner is entitled to American citizenship, but we offer it when people meet certain conditions — like respecting our laws and emigrating properly to the US.  How embarrassing is it that a member of Congress can’t figure out the difference?