Sunday, March 07, 2010

Obama Still Must Tread Carefully on Immigration Reform

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President Obama is walking a slender tightrope on what’s still the most volatile, contentious, and potentially politically life threatening issue to Democrats. That’s immigration reform. At first glance, the political stars seemed to be aligned for him to do what Bush failed twice at and that’s get a deal on immigration reform.
The light trial balloon that he floated on reform punched the right buttons. He has respected GOP South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham on board and working on a reform package with key Senate Democrats. This drew barely a ripple of comment and ignited no loud denunciations from anti-immigration foes. The Federation for American Immigration Reform which whipped anti-immigration sentiment up to a fever pitch three years ago barely mentioned the Obama proposal on its website. The group issued no impassioned action alerts demanding that the immigration talks be stopped in their tracks. The Minuteman groups that made a clownish spectacle of themselves with their gun toting antics at the Mexican border are long gone.

There is no visible organized Senate opposition. The majority of Democrats in Congress backed reform bills in 2006 and 2007 and will back an Obama immigration reform bill again. The Latino vote is big, vocal, active, and getting antsy that no progress has been made on immigration reform. Latino leaders repeatedly demand that Obama back up his campaign pledge to push a reform bill through. They’ve also saber rattled Republicans that they can again kiss Latino vote’s good-bye if they dig in their heels and stonewall reform again.

The guest worker plan that infuriated anti-immigration activists in the previous failed bills was yanked from the current proposed bill. Obama and the Democrats have gone even further and given the GOP senators pretty much what they demand as the price for getting a bill through. Undocumented workers must pay hefty penalties, pay all taxes, learn English, and wait for an extended time before attaining citizenship. Obama must also assure that any bill mandate failure to comply could result in deportation. Obama must also pledge to hermetically seal the border to stop the flow of immigrants.
A December America’s Voice poll found that a majority of voters and that includes Independents and Republicans, back comprehensive immigration reform. The number who said that undocumented workers should get the summary boot from the country has plunged. But there was a cautionary note in the poll, as with other similar polls. A majority are just as adamant that undocumented workers should not be given an easy stroll down the pathway to citizenship. They also demand strict enforcement of the provisions that undocumented workers pay taxes, and a penalty, be English proficient, patiently wait for approval, and that the borders be secured.
There’s also much devil in the details in the plan Graham and New York Democrat Charles Schumer have outlined so far. It’s the vagueness in those details that can be twisted and mangled by immigration reform foes to again try and torpedo reform. The foes have not totally disappeared. There’s still the loose network of anti-immigration organizations, and the legions of right wing talk jocks, tea baggers, and Fox News Network talking heads who can stir the troops to oppose any reform. The far right Christian Life and Liberty Net sent out a panicked alert mocking Graham as Grahamnesty and railed against him for backing amnesty for illegal aliens. The stock attack charge that any immigration reform bill is a de facto reward for breaking the law still stirs anger and passion in many Americans.
The loss of thousands of jobs, with official unemployment still nudging double digit, and with low wage American workers bearing the brunt of the downturn also presents a wedge for immigration foes. They almost certainly will again hammer that undocumented workers snatch jobs from needy American workers. The charge has been totally debunked but it still touches a raw nerve.
Immigration reform can’t be separated from partisan politics. The November mid-term elections are months away and Democrats have already suffered three hammer blows in losing a revered Senate seat in Massachusetts, and governorships in Virginia and New Jersey. Many Democrats will be squeamish about the risk of more losses if immigration opponents gather steam and again turn immigration into a finger-pointing, contentious, and polarizing issue.
Obama still has a major fight on his hands to get a health care reform bill passed. The bill is not on life support, but there’s still no guarantee despite the towering concessions Obama and Senate Democrats have made to get a bill, any bill, passed that that will happen. To risk stoking the same voter fury over immigration as health care has would be political folly.

Obama gave immigration reform short shrift in his State of the Union. But he’s put it back on the nation’s table. That’s a good thing. Now that he has the watch is on to see how hard or light he’ll tread on the issue.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His nationally heard talk show is on KTYM-AM 1460 AM Los Angeles, Fridays 9:30 AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio 90.7 Los Angeles, Saturdays Noon PST.