José de la Isla

Will Obama Be Brave on Immigration?

MEXICO CITY — In one of the quickest change acts since Clark Kent became Superman inside a phone booth, Republican political and opinion leaders now champion immigration reform.

The reason is obvious.

Republicans are destined to become a national minority party for generations to come, having lost any serious Latino constituency in presidential elections. They may not stand a chance in many statewide elections either for decades unless they change masks.

House majority leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor, influential former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, and GOP media spokesmen Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer have made an about-face. They are now willing to take their chances with the radical reactionaries inside their party and admit the nation needs a pathway to legalization for many millions of its residents.

The radical right and its fellow travelers are not expected to grin and go along.

So the question arises: are the reactionary elements in the party willing to forego winning elections for generation to come? In other words, it is the end of the national Republican Party and the rise of the Party of the South (for now), some Midwest and spotty parts of the West.

Just how does the general U.S. public account for the damage done to millions of immigrant families in the last six years, when a mostly Republican posse stopped former President George W. Bush cold, substituting his efforts with the punitive Sensenbrenner Bill, an anti-civil rights, anti-human rights, anti-U.S. political tradition law that championed measures and policies as draconian as the ones former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft implemented following 9/11.

The atmosphere of fear following the terrorist attacks in 2001 made foreigners in our midst a suspect class. As happens in unusual times of stress and crisis, hooligans move in to take advantage of the situation. In politics, it becomes leverage.

Seven weeks after the attacks, nearly 1200 mostly foreign nationals -- “suspected terrorists” -- were officially acknowledged to have been swept off the streets. The act set the precedent. The administration gave the impression it was preventing another attack. Many jails filled up. And the southern border with Mexico was made out to seem like a national-security vulnerability.

We now know the Bush administration gang that couldn’t shoot straight was putting on an act copied from a 1950’s TV episode of Dragnet. The consequence is that some people never wanted the curtain to drop. The enemy within became undocumented people whose most subversive act was to seek pay for work.

Congress did its part through the draconian Sensenbrenner Bill. It attempted to criminalize undocumented immigrants, violating Christian and other religious ethical traditions of decency and justice. Many Congressional Representatives who championed ugly unfairness were exorcized from political service at the polls in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections and now no longer matter. 

But the damage was done.

Today, the best political insight into resolving the issue so we can get on with other important national matters was proposed in 2006.

The author was not a politician. Addressing members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera, a graduate of highly ranked Brooklyn Law School, proposed simply that President Obama should issue the very next morning an executive-order pardoning all people for administrative legal violations concerning entry and presence in the U.S. (The violation that the radicals call “illegal” is actually by law an administrative matter.)

Eligible to register would be undocumented persons in good community standing who have family and jobs, attend school, are integrated into local institutions such as a church/synagogue/temple/ashram/mosque and doing a community good through, for example, volunteer work.

Rivera further proposed that community non-profit organizations and churches should be presidentially deputized to register candidates for the pardon by setting up card tables “in front of Wal-Mart.”

In a way, Republican president Gerald Ford did something similar to re-integrate so many young people who resisted the draft after the Vietnam War. In fact, it’s a Republican idea.

The test today is really over whether President Obama is a serious, credible man. Or is he going to double-cross Latinos again with double-talk. And is he going to give the game away again to the Republicans and use Latinos as the pigeons, barter-bait.

Unless he acts decisively, with courage and personal conviction, Barack Obama could become the Superman people voted for who went into a phone booth and came out mild-mannered Clark Kent.

To compromise is not what is called for now.

José de la Isla is a nationally syndicated columnist for Hispanic Link and Scripps Howard news services. His next book, The Rise of Latino Political Power, will appear early in 2013.