Time to Put Immigration Reform Back on the Agenda

Roll Call:

Hispanic lawmakers, with the support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are in the throes of a nationwide campaign to pressure President Barack Obama to put immigration reform on the priority list.

"The president is silent," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who is leading a 19-city tour to build grass-roots support for comprehensive reform. "If the president doesn’t set it as part of his agenda, it won’t happen." [...]

Gutierrez’s campaign attempts to humanize immigration by featuring children who are U.S. citizens bereft of their illegal immigrant parents. The events are being held in large churches, an attempt to bring a Biblical and moral dimension to the fight, Gutierrez said.

The attendees sign petitions to Obama, which will be presented to him when Hispanic lawmakers meet with the president, Gutierrez said.

"Look, you have it within your power to stop these separations of families. You stated it as a goal and you made a commitment," Gutierrez said of Obama. "He made it to me when I endorsed him. And we want him to keep his promise. It’s as simple as that."

Here's how it work: Congress passes legislation, and the president signs it. It doesn't have to be part of Obama's agenda. It can be part of Congress' agenda.

There's no doubt that the system is in serious need of reform, as NDN's Simon Rosenberg summed up a month ago:

Our broken immigration system is a national disgrace, yet another terrible vexing governing challenge left over from the disastrous Bush era. Legitimate workers have a hard time getting legal visas. Employers knowingly hire and exploit undocumented workers. Our immigrant justice system is a moral outrage. And of course, the scapegoating of the undocumented migrant has become the staple for right-wing politicians and media, giving them something to rail against as the rest of their agenda has collapsed all around them. It is long past time to fix this broken system and replace it with a 21st century immigration system consistent with traditional American values and the needs of our modern ideas-based economy.

Few would disagree with that assessment, the real contention is over the solutions. Nativists advocate a hardline against immigrants, but their loud and aggressive efforts have proven to be an electoral bust. On the other hand, Democrats have benefitted from an increasingly engaged, and increasingly Democratic Latino electorate. They're growing (PDF), they voted Democratic, and they expect action on this key issue. You see, for Latinos, immigration reform isn't an ideological issue, it's a family one. And you don't mess with family.

Pelosi is fully aboard:

Pelosi spoke passionately about the need for comprehensive immigration reform soon and urged an end to enforcement raids that fracture families, calling the policy "un-American."

"Who in our country would not want to change a policy of kicking in doors in the middle of the night and sending a parent away from their families?" Pelosi asked. "It must be stopped. It must be stopped. ... The raids must end. The raids must end."

People who live in some of the states most affected by immigration are fully supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, and not just Latinos and Asians, but across the board including whites. There is little appetite overall for the Minuteman agenda. Remember, even Republicans nominated John McCain -- author of the last immigration reform bill -- as their nominee, despite facing primary opponents trying to one-up each other on their anti-immigrant rhetoric. The issue simply doesn't have electoral bite.

Well, at least it doesn't hurt us. Republicans have much more to fear: If it were to pass, 11-15 million undocumented immigrants (no one knows for sure the exact number) would eventually be able to vote. For reference, an estimated 12 million Latinos voted in 2008. Republicans won't want to flood the electorate with new voters from a demographic that voted for Obama 67-32 percent, not when their current efforts are doing nothing but further alienate Latinos.

But that's a crass electoral calculus, and it cuts both ways. Democrats can do the right thing and also help themselves politically. It's a no-brainer.

The 2007 efforts at reform were killed by bipartisan opposition, including Democrats like Tom Harkin, Sherod Brown, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, and Jim Webb (as well as the rest of the usual cast of rogues like Bayh, Landrieu, etc).

And therein lies Gutierrez's plea to Obama -- some presidential arm twisting might be required to make reform happen. In the last Congress, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was a vicious opponent of immigration reform and a chief architect of (Democratic) Rep. Heath Shuler's efforts to push an enforcement-only bill through the House. But Rahm's efforts were likely motivated by his belief at the time that immigration would harm Democratic electoral chances. He must now see what actually happened: anti-immigrant rhetoric didn't just deliver zero victories to Republicans, but it also helped energize and turn Latinos (and Asians as well), who then voted for Democrats by record margins. If nothing else, Rahm is a political realist, and the results were crystal clear.

With electoral concerns assuaged, it's time to do the right thing.


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