Feb 4, 2009 at 12:00 am

Deborah Drennan hopes there are better times ahead for the people she serves. As the interim director of Freedom House, a Detroit shelter for people who have applied for asylum here and in Canada, Drennan says America's current immigration policy is both too focused on combating terrorism and too punitive.

"Yes, when you cross into the United States [without permission] you are illegal, you broke the law. But I consider that very different than someone who robbed a bank or assaulted someone on the street," she says. "But we treat them the same."

She expects a new focus from President Barack Obama's administration as he seeks to both protect the United States by combating terrorism but to moderate immigration policies with a more sympathetic view. He is, after all, the son of a foreign father.

"I think there's a hope that while Obama speaks about globalization and reaching out and opening fists, that he also means that understanding when people come into the country, they bring a real value," she says.

What, exactly, he'll do as president remains to be seen. His brief plan on the White House website says he will:

• Secure borders with infrastructure, personnel and technology improvements.

• Improve the "dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy," admit more immigrants who have family here, and match admissions to employers' needs for qualified employees.

• Reduce the number of people who enter illegally by investigating and sanctioning employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

• Support some type of pathway to legal residency for undocumented immigrants who pay fines such as back taxes and learn English.

• Bolster Mexico's economy to reduce illegal immigration.

"The first two things everyone has to say they're in favor of," says Jonathan Weinberg, a Wayne State University law professor. "To what extent is any of this going to happen? That's a much tougher issue."

As Obama's presidency progresses, changes could come — maybe quietly — both from his authority with executive orders and cabinet secretaries' policies. After all, Hispanic voters, in particular, who had supported President George W. Bush, returned to the Democratic Party and turned out for Obama in large numbers.

"There's a lot the Obama administration can do right out of the gate with immigration because immigration is an area that Congress has really left open for the executive to do what they will," says David Koelsch, director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. "It's hard to imagine a president being higher in the polls than he is right now. Why not spend some of the political capital now?"

The president's website foreshadows policies that would both update security and also grant "amnesty" to some undocumented people who have been in the United States. As a senator, Obama supported a provision that would have allowed children of illegal immigrants to become permanent residents if they met certain requirements including completing some college or joining the military.

As president he has not yet directly addressed any immigration reform. But one of President Obama's first executive orders was for the closing of the Guantánamo prison facility, a much-heralded move that many believe will help restore America's standing overseas.

In another immigration-related move, he appointed Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security Secretary. She is a former federal prosecutor and Arizona attorney general who Koelsch praises for her "moderate" views on immigration reforms. She's critical of a fence along the Mexican border, but as governor of a state with a large illegal population, has faced difficult immigration issues like the cost of undocumented children in public schools and health care expenses.

In Detroit, Homeland Security administrators are taking a "wait and see" attitude toward their new leaders, says Kathleen Alcorn, chief counsel for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the divisions of the Homeland Security agency.

"With each president we've experienced there's been slight changes that we notice," says Alcorn, a 14-year veteran with Homeland Security and the previous Immigration and Naturalization Service that was folded into the post-Sept. 11 department.

With or without Obama's urging, Congress could take up major immigration reform, but for the time being, attention largely is focused on the economy and the stimulus packages. Immigration reform advocates — both those who would like to see admission relaxed and those who want it tightened — are cognizant that immigration is largely an economic issue.

"Anything this administration is going to do on immigration, the rules changed after the market melted down. Any policy is ultimately going to have to be evaluated for its effect on the nonstop number of American workers losing their jobs," says Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates limits on immigration.

Dane cites Bush's failure to pass "amnesty" — provisions that would have given some undocumented immigrants a path to legal residency — as evidence of what a tough sell immigration reform is to the American public. Even the language of the issue — undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens? — points to the deep-rooted, polarized perceptions.

"It's going to be hard or impossible to convince Americans to continue to accept more and more foreign guest workers when the economy continues to decline," he says.

Using an economics argument against immigration is a relatively modern tactic, says John Bodnar, professor of history at Indiana University and author of the book The Transplanted, although he says anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new.

"The big basis of hatred in the 19th century and for a long time was religion," he says. "In the 19th century there was a sense of unlimited opportunity and land."

Koelsch sees the economic argument another way: immigration helps local economies, he says. "The biggest creators of jobs in the United States for the last 20 years have been the small businesses. It's not General Motors. It's not big companies. It's the mom-and-pop, family-owned businesses," he says. "Immigrants are concentrated there. Coney Islands, gas stations, service centers, party stores. A lot of them are owned by immigrants."

President Bush in his final press conference said immigration was an area he wished he'd achieved more success in. But it may have fallen off the radar for some voters. In a national survey last month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, just 41 percent of respondents listed immigration as a "top priority." In comparison, 85 and 82 percent said the economy and jobs were top priorities. Two years ago in the same survey, 55 percent of respondents said immigration was a top priority, just behind jobs, then at 57 percent.

The shifting focus is part of the ongoing debates about immigration, says Dane.

"Immigration has always meant different things to different people at different times," he says. "Anything this administration is doing immigration-related has to begin with its impact on the American worker, jobs and wages. Should you continue to allow a flood of illegal immigration into the country, you're corroding wages and reducing job opportunities for legal U.S. residents. Those issues are compounded now."

But Drennan sees the Obama administration taking a fresh approach.

"There have to be some checks and balances that say people are going to get fair treatment," she says. "The legislation has to separate any anti-terrorism policies from immigration."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]