Immigration Unlikely To Be Obama Priority

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In July, during an address to the annual meeting of the National Council of La Raza, Barack Obama promised to make comprehensive immigration reform “a top priority in my first year as president.” Don’t hold your breath.

Just a few days before the election, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Obama to rank in order of priority five issues – tax cuts, health care, energy, education and immigration. Obama made up his own list, appropriately adding the economy as his No. 1 priority and dropping immigration altogether.

For Latinos who assume that helping to elect Obama president guarantees them another shot at comprehensive immigration reform, his selection of Rep. Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff is not a good sign. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s enforcer in the Democratic-controlled House, Emanuel was – in the last two years – a major stumbling block to achieving an immigration package. Capitol Hill newspapers reported shouting matches between Emanuel and members of the Democratic-controlled Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who tried unsuccessfully to pressure the leaders of their party to tackle the issue.


It’s not that Emanuel has anything against immigrants or immigration reform. It’s just politics. According to The Washington Post and other newspapers, Emanuel decided that the issue was a loser for Democrats and that it belonged on the back burner. He was protecting the Democratic majority in the House by covering members who might be vulnerable to ouster if they were seen in their home districts as going along with “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. Once in the White House, I suspect Emanuel will channel those instincts toward protecting President Obama from a sticky debate.

The conventional thinking is that the issue has very little benefit for Democrats beyond scoring points with Latino voters, who will probably stay in their camp anyway. And it has a significant downside in that it makes some powerful enemies. Contrary to what you hear from the pundits, the Democrats’ major concern is not the nativists on the far right. Those who call into talk radio shows to complain about taco trucks or having to press “1 for English” never had much power to begin with. And they have even less now that their mean-spirited worldview has been repudiated by an election where much of the narrative was about embracing cultural diversity.

As has always been the case with the immigration issue, what Democrats worry about most is antagonizing their sponsors in organized labor. Bringing back the debate over comprehensive immigration reform means restarting the discussion of a new guest-worker plan – which John Sweeney at the AFL-CIO considers “a bad idea (that) harms all workers.”


It’s true that President-elect Obama owes Latinos an enormous debt for giving him two-thirds of their votes. But Obama and congressional Democrats also owe a lot to labor. Those IOUs are headed for a collision. I’m betting on labor to win. I expect immigration reform to be off the agenda for the next four years, especially since Obama will be looking to placate the unions while backing off the loony idea of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. That was never a serious proposal anyway, only something that Obama embraced during the Democratic primary to win votes from defeatists convinced that American products can’t compete with foreign ones.

Expect Latinos to get the shortchanged – again. They may get bought off with a couple of high profile appointments. Bill Richardson is already mentioned as a possible secretary of state, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could also be in line for a prominent role in the new administration. As someone who made history, Obama could also make more of it by appointing the first Latino to the Supreme Court. That would buy a tremendous amount of goodwill.


Yet when it comes to immigration, Obama will have trouble keeping his promise of comprehensive reform from last summer. He will probably toss Latino supporters a bone by stopping construction of the border fence that he voted for in the Senate and ending the workplace raids that have caused so much disgust in the Latino community.

But nothing else. And if Latinos are paying attention and holding the new president to account, they’ll know they’ve been used. And, if honest with themselves, they’ll have something else to be disgusted about.


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