Ted Kennedy has used his chairmanship of the Judiciary Immigration subcommittee for years to get a comprehensive immigration-reform bill passed into law.  Now Kennedy has decided to focus on health care, and advocates for full legalization worry that the next administration will ignore immigration:

Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) allies on immigration reform regard his departure from the Judiciary Committee as a withering blow to their cause and are searching for a new champion on the controversial issue.

Many are interpreting his decision to focus on healthcare as a setback to legislation that would put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. …

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in previous interviews has said the Senate will take up immigration reform in the 111th Congress, some proponents doubt President-elect Obama and Democrats will make the issue a top priority during the first years of his administration.

Rahm Emanuel, who will serve as White House chief of staff, predicted last year that immigration reform would not happen in the first term of a Democratic presidency.

Emanuel, who has seen immigration as a dangerous issue for Democrats, repeatedly battled members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to block consideration of an immigration package in the House while he was a member of the House Democratic leadership.

This is a classic good news/bad news scenario for immigration-enforcement advocates.  Kennedy’s departure and Emanuel’s ascension combine to make an Amnesty Lite bill much less likely.  The Obama administration will want to focus on the economy and its expansive jobs program, looking for ways to gain Republican support, and will avoid the divisive immigration debate like the plague.  They have no desire to see something unify the grassroots conservatives the way immigration did in 2006 and 2007 ever so briefly.

Raising immigration reform before the midterms would be the equivalent of Hillary Clinton’s Health Care Task Force from Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Obama will be smarter than that.  He’ll have a tough enough time in 2010 as it is.  Kennedy’s decision may be a consequence of the politics of the question rather than its origin.  He can see the writing on the wall as well as anyone else, and he wants to position himself for leadership on an issue that has some chance of being a priority.

The bad news?  That leaves immigration and border enforcement in the status quo for probably at least four years.  If Barack Obama wants to treat the jobs issue seriously, he’ll have to address border and immigration enforcement immediately, but the chances of him alienating his own caucus in that effort approach zero. We’ll have to wait until 2013 before anyone bothers to address this issue, either in an Obama second term or with a new Republican president.