Obama, New Congress Offer Hope for Pragmatic Immigration Reform


The results of elections 2008 are good news for immigration reform. It's not just the election of Barack Obama, say advocates. From the Senate to Congress, immigration failed as a wedge issue. And some anti-immigrant candidates have lost their seats.

Representatives of immigration rights groups recently weighed in on the elections during an Access Washington call organized by New America Media. They discussed how the ethnic vote swayed the presidential and congressional races in battleground states and why they perceive the changing landscape of the U.S. government as a victory for immigration reform supporters.

"Immigration is not just a Latino or Asian or immigrant issue," proclaimed Angela Kelley, Director of the Immigration Policy Center. "This is an issue of America."

Candidates - both presidential and congressional - spent $27.5 million dollars on 253 advertisements on immigration issues, reported Lynn Tramonte, policy director of America's Voice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. Though it didn't come up in the presidential debates, immigration policy emerged as a key issue in the Nov. 4 elections, especially among New American voters – immigrants and children born since 1965.

An exit poll, reported by America's Voice, interviewed voters in Florida and California and found that 63 percent of the 2,101 Hispanic voters polled felt immigration issues were "very important" to them. It is a misconception that Latinos aren't concerned about immigration just because it is not always the top issue, said Clarissa Martinez, senior director of Immigration and National Campaigns for the National Council of La Raza.

Martinez believes that immigration, especially over the last three years, has been the "driving push factor" influencing the Latino vote. "We've seen this [trend] since the election in 2006, when Latinos started walking away from the Republican Party because of their embrace of anti-immigrant political strategies," Martinez explained.

An exit poll of Chicago metropolitan voters, released by the Asian American Institute, found that 68 percent of Latino voters felt the Republican Party is not favorable to immigrants while 47 percent of Asian-American voters felt that way.

Election results indicated that a candidate's stance on immigration reform played a pivotal role in who gained the majority vote in certain battleground congressional races.

Some Republican representatives attempted to make illegal immigration a wedge issue in their campaigns, but this strategy proved ineffective. In Pennsylvania, Lou Barletta, the Republican mayor of Hazleton, ran an anti-immigration campaign against incumbent State Senator Paul Kanjorski, who was one of the few vulnerable Democrats. Barletta lost, which was heralded by immigrant rights groups who view him as the poster child of restrictionism.

Tramonte and her America's Voice colleagues tracked the 16 competitive battleground races in which Republican candidates highlighted their Democratic opponent's immigration reform positions. This tactic failed, for the most part. In 14 races, the Democratic candidate who supported comprehensive immigration reform won her/his race.

"It just proves that being for [immigration] solutions, being for common sense reform is not a political liability, and it actually enhances your chances in battle ground states," said Tramonte.

Immigrant rights groups are casting an eye towards five newly elected, pro-immigration reform senators who they hope will examine immigration issues with a different light and solve problems. They include: Mark Warner (Virginia), Mark Udall (Colorado), Kay Hagan (North California), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampire), and Tom Udall (New Mexico).

Now that Congress and the White House are in the Democrats' hands, there's no excuse not to move forward with immigration, argued Karen Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, a civil rights group.

"Immigration is long overdue," agreed Tramonte.

But Narasaki cautioned against setting expectations too high, noting that President-elect Obama will experience a trying first year in office with the current troubled state of the economy.

"In a weak economy, when people are losing jobs and feeling financially insecure, it's going to be much more difficult to have a rationale discussion about immigration and get the kind of fair, humane, comprehensive policies that we are seeking," she said.

When asked about how much leeway Hispanic organizations will extend to Obama's administration before pressing him to act on immigration matters, Martinez said, "We're not going to give them a free pass; we're not going to wait more than one year."

The challenge for Obama, perhaps, is not so much when he will tackle immigration reform but how he will approach all the issues it entails: amnesty, backlog, raids, enforcement agencies, border patrol, and the undocumented.

What will Obama do about the raids, for example?

"Obama knows the raids aren't an effective enforcement technique and have horrible ramifications in the community," observed Kelley, but at the same time, he must also balance that knowledge against the need, as commander-in-chief, "to not show weakness and inexperience on security and enforcement matters."

He will have to carefully walk a tightrope, she concluded.

While all four immigrant rights representatives shared confidence in Obama's ability to successfully push comprehensive immigration reform, each had different concerns moving forward.

Latinos placed a majority of the 250,000 calls to Congress in 2007, but Martinez wanted to make sure that that civil engagement does not lose steam now that the election is over.

Kelley said leaders in the community, locally and nationally, need to openly debate what fair enforcement measures should be proposed – not the ones that round up legal permanent residents and tear families part.

Since the Obama campaign promised change, hope, and solutions to tough problems, Tramonte said she would look to the administration to transform those ideals into action.

Narasaki suggested the Obama Administration should at least consider suspending the ICE raids because she believes group processing, during which clusters of immigrants testify before a judge together and are forced to plea to charges they don't really understand, is neither fair nor humane.

"I can't really think of another issue more important than how we treat America's newcomers, and how we treat American communities and families that are not monolithic in their immigration status," said Kelley.


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