News Analysis: Obama and Immigration Reform, Under the Radar … For Now

By John Rudolph, FI2W Executive Producer

For a new president who is still in the process of defining his administration’s policies, the media scrutiny can be intense. Almost immediately after taking office President Obama experienced what it’s like to be under the microscope as he and his White House team began to grapple with the economic crisis. Reporters guided by the advice to “follow the money” in the stimulus package began pulling apart the president’s proposals even before a penny was spent.


But, it seems, all issues do not rise to the same level of media attention – even highly controversial ones like immigration reform. Last week Mr. Obama went on the popular Spanish-language radio program Piolín por la Mañana and stated that his administration will start to draw up comprehensive immigration reform legislation, “over the next several months.” The president also told the show’s host, Eddie “Piolín” Sotelo that before proposing new legislation:

“We’re going to start by really trying to work on how to improve the current system so that people who want to be naturalized, who want to become citizens, like you did, that they are able to do it; that it’s cheaper, that it’s faster, that they have an easier time in terms of sponsoring family members.”

Mr. Obama’s comments – striking in their specificity — were reported by Spanish-language media, but virtually ignored by mainstream English-language newspapers, TV and web sites. It’s a continuation of a pattern that was established during last fall’s presidential campaign. When he was running for president, virtually the only place where Mr. Obama talked about the issue of immigration was in Spanish-language media. His Republican rival, Senator John McCain, followed an almost identical strategy. As a result, consumers of Spanish-language media heard a debate over the two candidate’s positions on immigration that was missing from mainstream media.

According to Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey, by making himself available to the often-marginalized ethnic press, the president “has signaled that he may shake up the traditional protocols of Washington journalism.” But there’s more to it than that. Even as Mr. Obama says “we are one America” he seems to understand that there are groups – including journalists – in this country that don’t talk to one another, never compare notes, and hardly acknowledge each other’s existence. The powerful anti-immigrant sentiment that can be found across the country is, at least partly, a product of immigrant and native-born communities that exist side-by-side, but seem to inhabit parallel universes. And it is the anti-immigrant forces that the president will have to win over if meaningful changes to the nation’s immigration laws are to be enacted.

You can’t fault the president for his choice last week of a friendly environment to talk about immigration reform. But at some point Mr. Obama will have to take his proposals to the whole country, not just the Spanish-language radio audience. That’s when the gulf separating the different sides in this debate will come more sharply into focus. It will be the president’s challenge to bring all the factions together to find a way to fix an immigration system that just about everyone agrees is broken.

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.