Can Obama afford to ignore immigration?

March 3, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

Where was immigration in Obama's 6,134-word speech

How Will Obama Administration Impact Immigration?

In the 6,134-word speech, which briefly touched on Afghanistan and the Middle East, one crucial issue wasn't mentioned: immigration. The agenda is so full that the political circuits may be overloaded. Some argue the urgency of the issue is eroding with the deteriorating economy. The number of illegal immigrants entering the United States has plunged - down to as few as 300,000 last year, or less than half of what it was several years ago - with more leaving now than arriving.

And the politics are even tougher than in the last Congress, when the bipartisan effort of Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain and President George W. Bush exploded in emotional recriminations by Republicans and crass calculations by some Democrats. With joblessness having soared since then, it is tougher to argue that the economy needs these workers.

Still, the notion that immigration can be finessed is a mirage. The problem will only get worse, and so will the politics. Obama, 47, a Democrat, would have to renege on his campaign promise to push a major immigration overhaul along the lines of the Kennedy-McCain measure in his first year.

The agriculture, food service and construction industries rely on immigrants. They are going through down times, but they'll need more immigrants when they bounce back.

That's true of the overall economy, says Tamar Jacoby, a scholar who favors an overhaul of the immigration system.

"Immigration reform may be harder in the middle of a recession, to make the case that we need more workers," Jacoby says. "But the only way out of a recession is to grow out of it, and we need workers to do that."

Even with the drop in the number of illegal immigrants - there are still an estimated 11.5 million in the country, or about 4 percent of the population - the social tensions are worsening. Highly publicized raids are disrupting communities and generating furious resentment among Hispanics.

40 percent of inmates in federal prisons are Hispanic

The new Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, wasn't even notified of a raid in Washington State last week.

And 40 percent of inmates in federal prisons are Hispanic; half of them are in for committing immigration crimes, not because they are violent criminals, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which is based in Washington. That's a huge cost to society.

Given the full agenda, some say the White House should wait on immigration until after the next congressional elections in 2010. Doing so, Jacoby warns, would be a mistake. "Bush waited too long, and then he didn't have the juice."

Ironically, two Democrats who are now among the most critically situated on the issue, former Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Senator Charles Schumer of New York, were impediments in the last Congress, although both are advocates of immigration reform.

Emanuel worried that the issue would hurt House Democratic candidates in conservative districts, and Schumer clashed with Kennedy, the architect of the Senate bill, over strategy.

Those two smart politicians no doubt appreciate a changed political landscape, with a bigger-than-expected Latino turnout last November.

"Both Schumer and Emanuel understand the 2008 election was a game-changer," says Frank Sharry, founder and director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice.

Earlier fears that immigration had hurt Democrats in 2006 in an Illinois House race and a special election in Massachusetts were trumped by several dozen races in which immigration-bashing failed and advocates of Kennedy-McCain-type measures succeeded.

Dramatic illustrations came in the heavily Hispanic states of New Mexico and Arizona. Three years ago, 9 of the 11 House members from those states were Republicans; today 8 of the 11 are Democrats, in large part because of Hispanic voters.

The impact wasn't only in Western states. In places like Virginia and North Carolina, a smaller number of Hispanic voters provided winning margins.

One incumbent Democrat whom House Republicans were confident of defeating last November was Representative Paul Kanjorski of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Republican candidate was the mayor of Hazleton, whose local crackdown included fining landlords for renting to illegal immigrants and inspired a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet on Election Day, Kanjorski survived.

In the presidential race, McCain unfairly suffered, because the Republicans became identified as the anti-immigration party. Obama carried the Latino vote by better than 2-to-1, with a big turnout.

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