November 14, 2008

Immigration Reform in 2009?

Frontera NorteSur

Will Barack Obama’s historic election victory give new impetus to immigration reform in the United States? Analysts and political observers in the United States and Mexico have mixed assessments. Auguring against a quick fix are the economic crisis and the Iraq war, both of which the president-elect promises to prioritize early on his administration.

Speaking on Univision Spanish-language television network shortly after Obama’s victory, Chicago City Councilman Billy Ocasio said he did not think immigration reform would be possible within the first 100 days of the new administration, but he proposed the suspension of ICE raids and mass deportations until a solution to the question of illegal immigration could be further analyzed.

Gustavo Cordova Bojorquez, director of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was likewise skeptical of any swift resolution to the US immigration question.

“In this regard, (Obama) isn’t going to make any substantial changes in the short run,” Cordova contended, “since (immigration) remained discrete and stayed at the margins during the campaign and he won without making any commitments.” Cordova predicted that immigration reform will reemerge on the US political agenda during the third year of the incoming administration, at a time when President Obama is seeking reelection and will have to revisit an issue that could aid him in winning a second term.

For most of the 2008 campaign, Obama, as well as Republican rival McCain, shied away from tackling the hot potato immigration reform issue on the campaign trail. A notable exception was in the Spanish-language media, where the two candidates blamed each other for the defeat of immigration reform in 2007. In an Albuquerque speech during the final days of the campaign, Obama, who was comfortably ahead in the polls by the time, reasserted his position that a path to legalization for undocumented residents was necessary.

Calling for greater border security and crackdowns on employers who hire undocumented workers, Obama nevertheless supported citizenship for undocumented residents who pay fines and learn English. “They broke the law and we can’t excuse that, but we can’t deport 12 million people,” he said.

A likely pivotal player in a revived immigration reform push will be President-elect Obama’s named White House Chief of Staff, Illinois Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel. Previously a strong supporter of immigration reform, Rep. Emanuel backed away from the issue after bills failed to pass Capitol Hill last year. More recently, he has been quoted as saying immigration reform won’t happen during the new Democratic administration’s first term. Emanuel also reiterated that the economy will be the burning issue to address.

Hard numbers from the 2008 election, however, strongly suggest that the Democrats will ignore immigration reform at the risk of alienating an important and growing part of their winning coalition.

In a post-election telephone press conference with Frontera NorteSur and other media, Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen credited new immigrant voters, who he estimated made up 40 percent of the 10 million-plus Latino vote in 2008, for helping sweep Obama into the White House.

Based on exit polls of 2102 new immigrant voters in Los Angeles and Miami, Bendixen said that 78 percent of the voters surveyed went for Obama and 22 percent for McCain. Immigrant voters played key or decisive roles in the swing states of Indiana, Virginia, Florida, Colorado and New Mexico, according to Bendixen.

Univision proclaimed Latinos as the “new political force of the 21st century” in the United States. Overall, Latino voter turnout, immigrant and non-immigrant, exceeded many predictions and nearly doubled from 5.9 million voters in 2000 to more than 10 million in 2008.

While economic, health care and other issues were very important for Latino voters in general and new immigrant voters in particular, Bendixen said immigration was the catalytic issue that politicized the immigrant community.

The virulent tone the immigration debate assumed after the introduction of the 2005 Sensenbrenner bill that proposed criminalizing undocumented residents was perceived as an assault against the entire Latino community, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, Bendixen said, leading many Latinos to reject a Republican Party which was skewed as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.

“I think we can conclude that the immigration issue was very important for all Hispanic voters and united them in this election,” Bendixen asserted.

“(Anti-immigrant sentiment) drove the Hispanic vote in a substantial way toward Barack Obama,” the political expert added. “It is clear that Latin American immigrants who voted, voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama.”

In Illinois, home of a huge immigrant population, John McCain was tagged with the anti-immigrant camp, even though the Arizona senator was once a champion of comprehensive immigration reform, said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The Republicans, Hoyt said, paid the price at the polls.

“The Republican brand has basically been destroyed among Latinos,” Hoyt maintained. Illinois Republicans, he added, are beginning to resemble “the limbless black knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.”

Although it is still too early to fully assess the impact and meaning of this year’s immigrant and Latino vote, a preliminary glance at the results indicates that such voters, many of whom voted for the first time, were crucial for not only Barack Obama’s victory, but also for the defeat of anti-undocumented immigrant Congressional candidates in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico.

While Latino and immigrant voters veered toward the left on economic and immigration issues in 2008, many steered toward the right on social issues. Latino and new immigrant voters backed gay marriage bans in California and Florida, according to preliminary reports. Otherwise, the landscape is hauntingly bleak for the Republican Party in US immigrant communities.

Speaking to reporters along with Bendixen and Hoyt, another prominent immigrant advocate said anti-immigrant stances seriously damaged the Republican Party’s prospects in a community it was beginning to make serious headway in by 2004.

“I think they are in a tough spot”, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “It’s not clear to me the Republicans have gotten the message.”

In Sharry’s view Republicans will have to disassociate themselves from “anti-immigrant extremists that have hijacked most of the party,” while Democrats will have to deliver immigration and other reforms favored by new immigrant voters if the party is to consolidate its new base among this segment of the electorate.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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