By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
The White House keeps sending signals that President Barack Obama intends to follow through on his campaign promise to address immigration reform in his first year in office. As the president prepared for his first official visit to Mexico (later this week), senior administration officials last week repeated the vow the president himself has made before: that action on this divisive issue will begin soon.
While pro-immigration advocates welcomed the new statements –by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Muñoz–, others pointed out that they were essentially repeating what the president himself has said recently.
Still, with the news this time being picked up by major newspapers–The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal–, momentum seems to be building for the much-expected debate on immigration.
In a story published on Wednesday, Muñoz told the Times Obama “intends to start the debate this year,” framing his initiative as “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system.”
Two days later, the Journal reported that Emanuel “says conversations on the issue will begin this year to lay the groundwork for possible action in 2010.”
Obama’s chief of staff has been considered a foe of immigration reform, after discouraging Democrat candidates from addressing the issue before the 2006 Congressional elections. But now, he told Laura Meckler, “It doesn’t matter what Rahm thinks. It matters what President Obama thinks.”
The news was not surprising to Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).
“Surprised, only in the sense that it took so long for the New York Times and other English-language media to report an old story,” Vargas told Feet In 2 Worlds in an e-mail exchange. “The president met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in mid-March and made a firm commitment to the members about moving comprehensive immigration reform this year. It was widely reported in the Spanish-language media.”
While the news may not have been new, it is clear that a debate that’s been simmering for some time is ready to surface — even in this tough economic time, when any new debate on major policy changes would seem ill-advised.
“The announcement could not come at a better time,” Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión said in an editorial. “…normalizing the status of undocumented workers will not take jobs away from anyone because they are already working in jobs that were vacant due to lack of interest by the native workforce.”
“Give credit to Obama for understanding that the status quo still stinks,” the New York Daily News added. “…great good luck to the President in what will surely be one hell of a fight.”
Immigration restrictionists also took notice. Conservative commentator Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, wrote, “Confirming what many of us had previously heard, President Obama plans to begin the push for a mass amnesty effort for illegal aliens, likely to rouse passions on all sides of the highly divisive issue.”
Coming during a deep economic crisis, immigration reform this time seems likely to be framed as a labor supply-and-demand issue. Providing a path to citizenship to an estimated 12 million undocumented workers can be portrayed as providing added competition to American citizens who badly need jobs. “Could the timing not be worse for this administration to push for mass amnesty?” Stein asked.
But immigrant activists say immigration reform will actually help the economy. “Working families, communities of faith, labor and business leaders all realize that fixing our broken immigration system is a critical component to recovering and stabilizing our nation’s economy,” Chung-Wha Hong, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said in a statement.
Many undocumented immigrants already have jobs, Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Law Foundation, told ABC News.
“They’re working shoulder to shoulder and living next door to U.S. citizens,” he said. “When they lose their houses, that affects the houses of their neighbors. If they don’t have rights to push back against employers who are looking to take advantage of them in these difficult times, then that affects the workers that are standing right next to them on the assembly line or in the construction industry.”
Vargas, of NALEO, said, “There is no good or bad time. It is needed now, so the sooner the president acts, the better.”