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Stakes Getting Higher For Obama, Latino Voters, and Immigration Reform

The President had a series of meetings on immigration reform that reflect the pressure he is feeling to act.

Maybe there’s a game on. The President had  three meetings on immigration reform at the White House today.  He is increasingly under pressure to act on promises he made as a candidate to enact immigration reform in his first year in office and, now in his second year, the patience of pro-reform advocates – and Latino and immigrant voters – is wearing thin.

The power of the Latino vote is a big reason the Democrats won the White House and control of both houses of Congress in 2008.  If the Democrats fail to address the immigration issue – an issue to which Latino voters are particularly sensitive and which helped drive their increased turnout in 2008 – the Democrats face even longer odds with voters in 2010.

The President met with Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who are leading the effort to introduce an immigration bill in the Senate and their meeting was sandwiched between two others.   The first was with a group of pro-reform advocates, including labor unions, a Catholic Bishop, and local and national ethnic, civil rights, student, and immigrant advocacy groups.  They had expected to meet with White House staff and ended up meeting with the President himself – a meeting he chaired.  The President’s last meeting of the day was with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and was planned to discuss both health care and immigration.

All of this comes at a particularly busy time as Congress prepares for the Easter recess.  The President is embarking on a major international trip (Indonesia and Australia, he leaves next week), is in the throes of a major public relations push for his health care proposal, and is trying to keep the focus on jobs and the economy.  Yet, he took almost an entire day to dig into immigration reform, an agenda item many thought – and some hoped – was dead.

Each of these meetings revealed something about the bind the President is in over immigration: he is already spread thin on other issues, but there are significant pressures on him to act, there are significant political benefits to acting, there are real costs to inaction, and meanwhile, Latinos in general and immigrants are not just feeling ignored, they are feeling betrayed as deportations escalate and communities continue to suffer.

Schumer & Graham

The meeting the press was prepared to cover was the one between the President and the best incarnation of the Odd Couple since Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon.  Senators Schumer and Graham were supposed to  meet with President Obama on Monday afternoon, but  it was delayed when Senator Graham’s flight from South Carolina was cancelled.  But at this point, delays are par for the course.  Over the summer, Senator Schumer assured the press and supporters of reform that he would introduce a bipartisan bill after Labor Day.  Now, almost six months later, he looks poised – again – to do so.  Senator Graham played a key role in getting an immigration bill passed in the Senate in 2006 and was one of the few helpful Republicans when a bill failed in the Senate in 2007.  However, he appears to be the only Republican to be stepping up to the plate this year.

Not much detail has been released about the Schumer/Graham proposal, but it is likely to track fairly closely to previous bipartisan efforts at compromise: 1) Stepped up border and interior enforcement targeting smugglers, criminals, and employers; 2) A worker verification system to allow employers to easily determine who can and can’t work legally in the U.S.; 3) A process for getting people who have been waiting for permission to come to the U.S. legally through the processing backlog that can stretch to 20 years currently; 4) Legal immigration channels for workers and family members as an alternative to illegal immigration; and 5) A requirement that people who are in the country illegally register with the government, pay fines, pass a criminal background check, and fulfill other criteria to get legal status that would eventually allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship like other immigrants.