Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama and Immigration

Stanford professor leads Obama immigration team
Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Stanford law Professor Tino Cuéllar was named this week to lead President-elect Barack Obama's transition working group on immigration, putting him among the many scholars from the Bay Area who are helping shape the next administration.

The team is one of seven policy groups Obama has convened to develop priorities for the first months of his presidency on topics ranging from education to the economy to national security.

The task of overhauling the nation's immigration system stymied President Bush, who favored an approach combining tougher enforcement with legalization for the country's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants and a guest worker program to allow low-skilled foreign workers to enter legally in the future. Congress twice hammered out "comprehensive" bills on the issue, but Bush lacked the political capital to get the measures passed.

Obama must not only navigate the choppy political waters surrounding an immigration reform bill, but also address many related issues - whether to back an electronic workplace verification system up for reauthorization, how to tackle the unwieldy bureaucracy at the citizenship agency and whether to continue the current immigration enforcement raids.

Through a law school spokeswoman, Cuéllar declined to be interviewed, but lawyers and immigration experts across the country praised him Friday for his intellect and his grasp of both regulatory minutiae and the big picture of American immigration policy.

"He's brilliant beyond his years," said John Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who met Cuéllar when he was a law student at Yale and encouraged him to go to work in Washington.

At 36, Cuéllar already has an impressive resume. Raised on the U.S.-Mexico border in Calexico (Imperial County), he earned his bachelor's degree at Harvard University before going to Yale Law School and finishing up with a doctorate in political science from Stanford, where he's now a full professor specializing in administrative law.

Along the way, he spent two years at the U.S. Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton, where he worked on fighting money-laundering operations.

Cuéllar has been described as a close adviser to Obama on immigration, and the American Bar Association recently suggested he could be on the short list to head the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.

"He has considerable experience in the federal government, and his academic work has focused on analysis of complex organizations and the way they administer and devise public policy," said Yale Law School Professor Peter H. Schuck, who was one of Cuéllar's teachers and counts him as a friend. "He'll bring a very keen eye for organizational performance and a very innovative mind."

Cuéllar will co-lead the immigration policy group with Georgetown University Law Center Dean T. Alexander Aleinikoff, who was second in command at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton years.

While Aleinikoff's background in immigration law is deep, Cuéllar brings a broader perspective, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior staff member at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

The fact that Cuéllar grew up on the border may mean he has strong views about the border fence currently being expanded by the Department of Homeland Security, said Chishti.

"He also has ideas on how issues of trade and economic development (in other countries) implicate immigration movements," he said. "I think he will be very responsive to the concerns of American workers in the immigration debate."

E-mail Tyche Hendricks at

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