President Obama’s pledge to pursue a package of gun control measures next month has immigration advocates concerned whether the effort could delay or distract the White House from moving quickly to fulfill another of his second-term priorities.
Latino leaders, disappointed by Obama’s inability to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in his first term, say they understand and support the urgency of Obama’s push to reduce gun violence in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting rampage.
But they said they expect him to make good on his promise to “seize the moment” on immigration in the wake of an election in which Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported him and other Democrats. Republicans, stung by the losses, have suggested they are open to new immigration reforms as they seek to broaden their own base of support.
“There is clear momentum for it, so it’s really important to get to it immediately because it will not happen overnight,” said Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which spent millions recruiting new Hispanic voters this year. “Our belief is that 2013 is the window of opportunity. We’d like to see it happen in the first part of year, whether it’s three months or six months, but in order to start the clock running we have to start quickly.”
Medina and other advocates said the White House told them to be ready as early as next month to help lobby Congress and rally the public over reforms that could help provide a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers. Obama, who won 71 percent of the Latino vote, said during his first news conference after winning reelection that he expected to have a comprehensive legislative bill introduced in Congress “very soon after my inauguration” on Jan. 20.
But that was before a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, prompting Obama to declare that he will use all the powers of his office to reduce gun violence. Last week, the president appointed Vice President Biden to head a commission to develop new proposals that Obama will “push without delay” in January.
Adding further complications to the timetable over the White House’s immigration strategy is the deadlocked negotiations over the looming “fiscal cliff” that could drag into the new year. Asked last week about Obama’s increasingly bloated agenda, White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to rank priorities.
“We need to do all of it,” Carney said. “And this president is committed to just that.”
Immigration advocates say they intend to keep the pressure on. Last week, Latino leaders announced they will keep a scorecard on lawmakers over immigration and mobilize voters in the 2014 election against those who score poorly.
The advocates said they are encouraged that Senate Republicans, led by Marco Rubio (Fla.) and John McCain (Ariz.), have had private discussions about their immigration strategy in recent weeks.
But in the House, where Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said last month the time is right to pursue immigration reform, the GOP named Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), viewed as a hardliner on immigration, as chairman of the immigration subcommittee. Another hardliner, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), was named chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration. Both have been skeptical of immigration proposals such as the Dream Act.
“As we line up a path to gun control and the response to Connecticut, everybody expects Congress, just like the rest of the American people, will be able to take on more than one thing,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of civic engagement and immigration for the National Council of La Raza. “There is a real premium for Republicans moving forward on immigration. It’s less about their position with Democrats than with making inroads with a section of the electorate that they will not see the inside of the White House without. That’s their biggest motivation.”
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) was so frustrated with the Obama administration’s record of deporting more than 1 million undocumented immigrants that he was arrested after staging a protest outside the White House gates in July 2011.
Gutierrez also has been active in attempts to push stronger gun control measures. He said he hopes that on both issues, growing public pressure will help break long-standing inaction on Capitol Hill.
“Would I like the White House to be more public and demonstrative about what they’re doing on immigration? Sure,” Guiterrez said. “Do I believe in the end they will be in the forefront of the fight, spearheading the fight? Yes. Might we have to wait a little longer and be patient as the White House grapples with so many different issues? Yes, but in the end I have every expectation I will be standing next to the president on this.”