Immigration Reform: Still on Obama’s Agenda31 Mar 2011
Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) continues to be one of the major political IOUs still outstanding, two years and counting into the Obama administration. As a candidate, Obama promised to introduce a comprehensive immigration bill in his first year, a promise still not kept, as of this writing. Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize winning website, Politifact.com lists this among the President’s broken promises. (See No Big Push in First Year, by Lukas Pleva, Politifact.com, 13.Aug.2010.) The President’s promise to support “a system that allows undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens” rates a “stalled” on the Politifact website. (See Immigration Reform Appears Gridlocked for Next Congress, by Angie Drobnic Holan, Politifact.com, 05.Jan.2011.)
To be fair, a few small matters have kept the President rather busy in the past two years: the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; two – now three – wars overseas; a string of natural disasters and foreign policy crises – not to mention the ongoing budget battles on the home front. That said, his Latino supporters may not be so understanding when the 2012 elections roll around. As New York Post columnist Albor Ruiz put it the other day, “President Obama talks a good game when it comes to immigration reform. But by now, it is obvious that’s all he does, and few take his promises seriously.” (See Reform Pressure Falling on Obama, Dems Who Have Failed to Address Immigrant Rights Issues, by Albor Ruiz, New York Post, 13.Mar.2011.) According to Ruiz, the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, recently told a gathering of politicians and immigration activists that people laugh at you if you tell them you will push for immigration reform. Ouch!
One wonders, then, what the President of El Salvador made of President Obama’s assurances last week – during a brief stop there on the way home from state visits to Brazil and Chile – that “This is the time to do it [comprehensive immigration reform]. I will continue to push hard to make it happen.” (See Remarks by President Obama and President Funes of El Salvador in Joint Press Conference, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 22.Mar.2011.) The President told reporters:
“President Funes is committed to creating more economic opportunities here in El Salvador so that people don’t feel like they have to head north to provide for their families.”
President Obama continued his discussion of the economics of immigration, linking it to regional problems with gangs and drug trafficking caused by poverty and a lack of economic development:
“I thought President Funes gave a very eloquent response to one of my questions during our bilateral meeting. He said, I don’t want a young man in El Salvador to feel that the only two paths to moving up the income ladder is either to travel north or to join a criminal enterprise.”
The President’s analysis of the economic “push factors” that drive illegal immigration was right on the money. More open to question is the President’s suggestion – qualified though it was – that comprehensive immigration reform is still a live possibility under current circumstances. The President said:
“I continue to believe in comprehensive immigration reform. America is a nation of laws and it is a nation of immigrants. And so our job is to create secure borders, to make sure that we’ve got a legal immigration system that is effective and is not frustrating for families, doesn’t divide families.
“But we also have to make sure that those who are in the United States illegally at this point, but in some cases have been there for a long time, that they have a pathway to get right by the law. And several years ago we were able to craft a bipartisan consensus, at least in the United States Senate, around this issue. Senator John McCain, Senator Ted Kennedy had a comprehensive immigration reform bill that I supported and was a part of when I was in the Senate. And we were able to get it passed through the Senate, and we couldn’t get it passed through the House of Representatives.”
The President did acknowledge that CIR faces an uphill battle – at best – but nonetheless held out hope of achieving CIR:
“Over the last two years, it’s been more difficult to gain Republican support for some of these efforts. And my hope is, is that they begin to recognize over the next year that we can’t solve this problem without taking a broad, comprehensive approach. […] It won’t be easy. The politics of this are difficult. But I am confident that ultimately we are going to get it done.”
The odds of that happening before 2012 are getting longer and longer, particularly if the GOP determines that lack of immigration reform will hurt Democrats more than Republicans in the next election. Both parties are angling hard for a share of the increasingly influential Latino vote – the constituency that put candidate Obama in the White House, largely on the strength of his promises to reform our immigration system. If he cannot deliver on this promise before 2012, all bets are off. Even if Latino voters don’t swing toward the GOP in 2012, they may be angry enough at the Democrats to just stay home, which could be a decisive factor. Stay tuned.