Immigration reform: Stuck in the shadows

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Sunday, tens of thousands of Americans who supported Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 will gather on the Mall to protest the president's lack of action on a cause to which he had committed himself throughout the campaign: immigration reform.

As a candidate, Obama spoke eloquently of the need to bring the estimated 11 million immigrants here without documentation "out of the shadows." As president, he stepped up the number of deportations to an all-time high: 298,401 in fiscal 2009, a 13 percent increase over the last year of George W. Bush's presidency. But reforming our ridiculous immigration laws so that the millions of immigrants here illegally could have a path to legalization was deferred, like so many administration commitments, until health-care reform was enacted.

So immigrants and Latinos held their tongues, despite the increase in deportations that wreaked havoc in their communities, in hopes that Year Two of the Obama presidency would be better. They waited until Obama's State of the Union address, in which the president devoted one sentence -- "one paltry sentence," in the words of Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the Chicago Democrat who is the leading advocate for America's immigrants in the House -- to the issue.

At which point, Latino America exploded. The Spanish-language press rang with cries of betrayal. Leaders pointed out that 2 million more Latinos voted in 2008 than in 2004, and that they had given 67 percent of their vote to Obama. Without the Latino surge, they argued, Obama would not have carried Colorado, Nevada, Florida and other swing states.

"There's huge discontent, especially among the young," says Angelica Salas, who heads the Coalition for Humane Immigration Reform of Los Angeles. "They see their parents snatched away, they have to put their lives on hold." (There are an estimated 4 million U.S.-born American-citizen children of undocumented parents.)

And so, the immigrant leaders called a march on Washington that, as Gutierrez says, "is primarily directed at President Obama and his administration." In that sense, the march comes straight out of the A. Philip Randolph playbook. Randolph, the president of the old Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, called the first March on Washington in 1941 to pressure Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order desegregating defense factories. When Roosevelt issued the order, Randolph agreed to call off the march. But he called for such a march again in 1948 to pressure Harry Truman to desegregate the armed forces -- and when Truman issued that order, Randolph again called off the march. The third such march he called -- in the summer of 1963, to demand the passage of civil rights legislation -- famously and gloriously took place.

The civil rights leaders who have called this march don't doubt that if Obama could enact immigration reform by executive order, he would. In his meeting with them last Thursday, the president affirmed his commitment to the cause. Whether it will become his legislative priority is another question: Congress is waiting to see what Obama does, even as Obama says he needs to see some GOP willingness to enact reform (and this is certainly a cause that some leading Republicans, most notably John McCain, have supported in the past).

None of the immigrant advocates says that this is an easy issue. Historically, immigration reform has been enacted during times of prosperity, not recession. But no path to legalization has been staked out since 1986 -- a long time for millions of people to live in the shadows. "There's always an excuse," says Salas. "First it was terrorism, now it's the recession."

For his part, Gutierrez has made clear that his vote for health-care reform may depend on the president's willingness to push immigration reform this year. "This is not easy," he says. "My office is covered with pictures of the president with me. We worked hard for his election. My wife adores him."

But like other key groups within the Democratic base (such as labor) that saw their signature issued deferred and now fear that the ability to enact progressive legislation will end in November, the Latino leadership feels it can wait no longer. "I'm very hopeful" that the president will agree to push for legislation, says Gutierrez. "The ball is in his court."

And if the president doesn't agree? "We will go into the field," says Gutierrez, "like the civil rights movement and the suffragists did." "We will escalate," says Gustavo Torres of Casa de Maryland, "to civil disobedience."

A further contingency plan confronts Obama with a more palpable threat. "The Latino community will stay home in the elections of 2010 and 2012," says Torres.

You can argue that that wouldn't be in Latinos' self-interest -- but absent immigration reform, that case is getting harder and harder to make.

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