The Slow and Steady Politics of Immigration Reform

As President Obama struggles to pursue the key elements of his domestic agenda, some advocates have worried that immigration reform will take a backseat to other issues like expanding healthcare and combating climate change. Commentators note that there is disagreement even among Congressional Democrats over the issue of immigration reform, which hinders Obama’s ability to build a consensus.

But progress, though slow, has continued. During a press conference following an August 10 meeting with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Obama said that he expects the development of a bill to begin this fall, with draft legislation “before the year is out.” In addition, Obama expressed support for an element of reform to be some path to amnesty for the 12 million unlawful immigrants in the U.S., saying that, “[Department of Homeland Security] Secretary Napolitano is coordinating these discussions.”

On August 20, Napolitano herself held a meeting with over 100 stakeholders in the immigration debate, including reform advocates, law enforcement, business and labor interests, and religious groups. No major developments came from the meeting, but attendees describe “a good deal of common ground” balanced by the Administration’s emphasis on “tough and smart enforcement” of immigration laws.

Some advocates have attacked Napolitano in particular for the messages she has sent by emphasizing strict enforcement of immigration laws and embracing Bush-era policies. Among these advocates is United Farm Workers Union President Arturo Rodriguez, who spoke at Napolitano’s meeting. “We are a nation of laws,” he explained to a reporter. “We all understand that, but simultaneously we are a nation of immigrants as well that treats people with dignity and respect.”

One way to view the development of immigration reform proposals is to view it politically. The Administration wants to avoid fighting on too many issues at once, so its public statements have remained noncommittal. On the other hand, the Administration must act in advance of the 2010 mid-term election or else risk Democrats being punished by Latino voters (who voted for Obama nearly 3:1 over John McCain in the 2008 election).

This is particularly important when one considers how the election unfolded: in 2008, Obama won states that Democrat candidates had not captured in many years: Colorado hadn’t gone to a Democrat since 1992, Nevada since 1996, and New Mexico since 2000; Obama may even have won Arizona, had that not been McCain’s home state. With Latinos and immigrants making up large portions of the Southwest electorate, Obama’s hopes for reelection in 2012 depend on maintaining their support.

Given the balance of statements and action on the issue of immigration reform, and considering the political stakes for Obama, it seems very likely that reform will take center stage by early 2010.

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