SUZANNE GAMBOA

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The head of the leading Latino legal advocacy group in the United States suggested Friday that if comprehensive immigration legislation seems unlikely in 2010, Congress should make down payments by enacting smaller-scale changes.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he fully expects work on rewriting immigration law to begin in Congress next year.

But if Democratic leaders delay, because of elections and a hostile political climate for immigrants, Congress should take up the issue gradually and in smaller ways, Saenz said. Lawmakers could address the need for foreign agricultural workers, provide legal status to high school graduates brought to the country illegally as children, and create equity for same sex partners who want to come to the United States or get green cards.

"As of right now, I have not been convinced that comprehensive immigration reform cannot move in 2010, so it needs to move. It needs to include all of these elements and many more," Saenz said. "If that is not possible, then I'm interested in discussing this idea of down payments with a commitment to fulfill the obligation through comprehensive immigration reform that is not postponed indefinitely."

Previously, immigration advocates have been reluctant to address immigration reform piecemeal to keep the various interest groups united on difficult issues, such as legalizing millions of people who are in the country illegally.

Saenz acknowledged that immigration reform is meeting fierce opposition. He also agreed that President Barack Obama may face a tougher road trying to tackle it than former President George W. Bush, whose conservative credentials made his position on the issue more palatable to some. Obama is under pressure from Latinos to succeed, he said.

"Part of President Obama's mandate coming in, particularly in the high levels of support that he received from Latino voters in critical states, I think a significant part of his mandate was about comprehensive immigration reform," Saenz said.

While the politics is playing out, Saenz said the Obama administration can take immediate action on immigration by fixing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Homeland Security Department, and suspending agreements that allow local and state law enforcement to enforce immigration laws. The agreements have led to civil rights abuses, such as racial profiling, he said.

Saenz, who was general counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for five years, said that like the LA police force of about 15 years ago, ICE's "reputation in the community is deservedly abysmal" because it permits and condones civil rights violations regularly.

"It needs to be fixed," just as the LAPD was, Saenz said. That could be done with leadership, transparency, repercussions for civil rights violations and oversight from an outside group, among other things, he said.

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On the Net: Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund: http://www.maldef.org

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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