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

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.

The details will matter, both in terms of its political viability and – more importantly – whether it will work to solve our immigration issues.  Items like a mandatory trip out of the country for legalizing immigrants to “touch back” in their country of origin – a silly part of previous bills meant to somehow “reboot” the person’s legal status by making them leave and come back – is reportedly not part of the Schumer/Graham proposal.  The Wall Street Journal “broke” the story this week that the employer verification system in the bill would resemble a “national ID” of some sort, but it is unclear what that will entail.  In every bipartisan immigration bill that has gotten traction in recent years, a system similar to the E-Verify verification system has been slated for mandatory use by all employers for all employees, but Senator Schumer, a fan of a national ID, may have more in mind.

But it seems the President is prepared to back what the two Senators come up with.  In a statement after the meeting, the President said:

I told both the senators and the community leaders that my commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is unwavering, and that I will continue to be their partner in this important effort.

Nice words, but the community leaders he met with want more.  This week, they began ratcheting up the rhetoric.  The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) put out a video last week in English and Spanish with the President, as a candidate in July 2008, promising to address immigration, saying:

I think it's time for a President who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular.

And advocates have also been organizing the March for America, which promises to bring tens of thousands of immigration reform supporters to the National Mall on March 21.  Mr. Obama, who marched with the immigration reform movement in Chicago against the 2005/2006 House Republican anti-immigrant bill, knows the power of an immigration reform rally.

The advocates who have united under the banner of the Reform Immigration for America (RI4A) campaign – a coalition of labor unions, faith groups, progressive, student, ethnic, civil rights, business, and immigrant groups – want the President to make a firm commitment to support the Schumer/Graham bill and help push it through the Congress this year.

The Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, and a key leader of the RI4A campaign, said after the meeting between the advocates and the President:

We had a lively and straightforward meeting with the President and his staff. We made clear that we expect him to keep his promise to overhaul our broken immigration system…The President indicated that his administration is committed to driving a bill forward in the spring of 2010. Based on our conversation, we are optimistic and expecting aggressive and urgent action from the White House on comprehensive immigration reform before March 21.

While the President and his aides are feeling the pressure the community leaders are putting on him – which will be escalated in volume and visibility at the March for America, it is the reality of what is going on immigrant communities in the absence of reform that really got the President’s attention this week.

Deportation Nation

A press conference Monday, organized by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), a subset of community-based pro-immigrant advocacy coalitions, put the cost of inaction on immigration in sharp relief.

They documented how the number of deportations have escalated to anastounding 387,000 per year under President Obama.  That’s more than 1,000 per day and a population the size of Minneapolis or Tulsa every year.  Deportations are ripping apart families, destabilizing communities and forcing businesses to close.  Add to this the deplorable conditions in which we hold immigration detainees, the brutality with which we apprehend people, and the complete inflexibility of our legal system, and you have a deportation crisis.

Since we will never deport our way out of our current mess, many people would like to see a cessation of deportations until reform is passed.  Some of the advocates – who were invited to the White House after their presentation at the Monday press conference – made this plea directly to the President.

It would be nearly impossible for him to order the federal government not to be enforce federal laws.  His administration has argued that is targeting enforcement resources specifically at serious criminals and other high-risk immigrants – and not just average workers and family members who are in the country illegally.  The reality is that while there have been some changes, enforcement is happening at a furious pace.  He is not likely to call off the dogs, but, again, the important question is how much of himself and his political capital he is will to expend to change the laws and relieve the needless suffering of immigrant communities.

The CHC’s Hardball

Which brings us back to politics. The President’s last meeting of the day was with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. They have been playing hardball, floating the possibility this week that they would withhold their support for the President’s health care proposal if the treatment of immigrants and Latinos was not addressed in the bill and if they did not get assurance that immigration reform would be a top priority for the President.

Some may say this is an idle threat, but for the past couple of years, the Hispanic Caucus has been able to play a bigger and bigger role in the immigration debate.  Essentially, the Caucus has withheld support for any immigration-related measure unless it was comprehensive.  They have not allowed agriculture, high-tech, hospitality, and other business sectors to advance their agenda on immigration without including broader reforms to address the immigrants here illegally, family immigration, and broader worker visa issues.  The notoriously fractious Caucus has remained extraordinarily cohesive in this effort.

More importantly, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus represents the power of the Latino voter in the American electorate.  Between 2004 and 2008, the Hispanic electorate grew by 30%, adding more than two million voters. Latinos make up 25% or more of the electorate in 79 Congressional districts (54 currently held by Dems, 25 by Rs) and over 40 close House and Senate races could be won or lost on the strength of the Latino vote this year.  Not only that, but the potential size of the Latino vote is growing quickly, partly through immigration, but mostly because about 400,000 Latino citizens reach age 18 each year.

But while Democrats enjoy an advantage with immigrant voters – mostly because of the harsh GOP rhetoric on immigration – they are by no means solid a Democratic constituency. Latino Decisions, a polling firm, released a report late last year that indicated Obama and the Democrats are losing the broad support they once had among Latino voters.

In 2008, the Latino vote increased more than any other segment of the population and was a crucial part of Obama’s coalition, especially in Nevada, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, and even Indiana. However if Congress does not act on immigration reform and pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, many Latino voters may think twice about voting Democrat in 2010 or 2012.

Many Latino voters in 2008 were new voters – those who registered and voted for the first time, many of whom were new citizens spurred to get citizenship and become voters, again, by the harsh rhetoric of the Republicans.  It is not clear that the level of enthusiasm displayed by these voters will be sustained through 2010 when there is already a natural drop in voter participation because there is no Presidential race.

One statistic from New York is troubling.  New voters – those who had cast their first ballot in 2008 – were among those least likely to vote in the New York City Mayor’s race, according to a research study conducted by City University of New York’s John Mollenkopf, reported on this weekend by the New York Daily News,

Just one in five of 2008's first-time voters cast ballots in November - 71,335 of 338,128. While 39% of New Yorkers who voted in 2008 also voted in 2009, turnout was just 21% for people who had cast their first ballots a year earlier.

This could be the strength of the candidate or the race, but first time voters are notoriously unlikely second time voters, especially if they don’t feel their vote made a difference.

In the case of Latino voters, many who watch voter turnout and mobilization closely are concerned that the growing electorate from 2008 could deflate significantly in 2010.  Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza observed:

The millions of Latinos who voted for the first time in 2008, and those who went through the arduous citizenship process to get that privilege, need to see that participating in the democratic process means something. Many had the expectation that their vote would help speed up the day when we got serious immigration reform enacted and now their patience is wearing thin. We must not lose momentum or let the Latino community's unprecedented civic engagement wither. As we look toward November, we don't care what party people vote for, but we do care that people vote and see that their vote has meaning and leads to action.

Both parties have an interest in engaging the electorate in the democratic process and both parties could make a play for the Latino vote or parts of the Latino vote (though the Republicans have a lot of damage to undo).  In the short-run, this President stands to gain a great deal from energizing the Latino electorate by working with Congress to move immigration reform legislation and get a bill introduced, debated, and hopefully passed by the time voters go to the polls.  It is only out of reach if the GOP flatly refuses to work on a bipartisan basis on any legislation, because there are Republican Senators and Representatives who would support reform.  One more thing would keep it out of reach: if the President and his fellow Democrats don't choose to push for it.

This piece is crossposted on NewJunkiePost.


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