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Memo to President Obama on a Recipe for a Down Payment on Immigration Reform in 2010

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A defining moment in relations between the Latino community and the Obama Administration is fast approaching as the clock runs out on federal immigration reform legislation in 2010. By the end of June approving "comprehensive" immigration reform will be practically impossible given Republican resistance combined with the usual glacial pace of work in the Senate.

Compounding the Latino dilemma is the looming possibility that the Democrats who won more than 70% of the Latino vote in 2008 may lose control of one or both Houses of Congress, setting back immigration reform hopes through at least 2013.

Meanwhile, Latino communities are suffering massive deportations and raids, racial profiling and discrimination not seen in generations.

Already, plans are being made to punish the federal legislators of both parties in November 2010 for failure to enact legalization for undocumented immigrants -an issue of great concern for Latinos. Democrats blame anti-immigrant Republicans, but that only explains the logjam in the Senate. Indeed, Latino leaders are crystal clear that the White House has given only lip service to immigration reform. Worse, Speaker Pelosi has blocked action on three broadly supported reform proposals in the House of Representatives for months.

However Latinos will forgive them for now if Mr. Obama and the Democrats embrace a doable four point strategy in 2010 that delivers short term relief for under-siege immigrants, partially reforms our broken immigration system, boosts the U.S. economy, and jettisons the current punitive premises for immigration reform while continuing to seek bipartisan legislative consensus as well as public support for comprehensive reform in the mid-term.

Here is the "down-payment in 2010" on comprehensive immigration reform plan:

  • President Obama should issue a series of executive orders that: halts deportations of undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen or green-card holder children/spouses, as well as the "dreamers" (undocumented students); and suspends the hated 287-G/Secure Communities program that transforms local police into immigration agents thus diverting scarce resources from pursuit of true criminals;
  • Attorney General Holder should withdraw a 2002 DOJ memo that holds that local police have the "inherent right to arrest undocumented persons", thus clearing the path for a DOJ suit against Arizona's just enacted "racial profiling" state law (SB1070) that criminalizes immigrants. SB1070 is a clear violation of US Constitutional provisions that reserves immigration law exclusively to the federal government;
  • Senate Majority Leader Reid should promptly gain approval of a bipartisan "down payment bill," towards an eventual comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate that includes the Dream Act and AgJobs. Both measures are already broadly supported (including some Republicans, the Pentagon, and Agro-business). The measures respectively enables certain undocumented graduates of US High Schools to legalize if they attend college or enlist in the military, and legalizes certain undocumented farm workers if they agree to keep working the fields;
  • House Speaker Pelosi should simultaneously gain approval of the Hispanic Caucus-sponsored bill on immigration reform (CIR-ASAP). Unlike the Senate (which requires 60 votes to do anything these days), the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives only requires a simple majority to approve legislation and basically approves whatever the powerful Speaker mandates. CIR-ASAP blends broad legalization, AGJobs, and the Dream Act with additional "smart" security and enforcement measures, as well as a regulatory migrant labor commission to handle future legal migration flows to the US.

The approaching tight elections on the one hand and the mass social justice movement for immigrant rights (which just mobilized millions on May Day) in partnership with President Obama (he will have to use the bully pulpit a la Ronald Reagan in 1986 when he campaigned in support of the Immigrant Reform and Control Act-IRCA, which legalized 3 million undocumented persons then), will provide more than enough pressure to "convince" both Houses of Congress to promptly run the final version of the immigration bill through conference and approve it.

Of course, the final bill will have been trimmed by the conference process so that it is well short of comprehensive immigration reform (unfortunately). Nevertheless, a modest "down payment" on immigration reform in 2010 is far better than nothing and would be viewed as victory by Latinos with credit shared by both parties -thus neutralizing it as an election issue. This is same political formula than wedded conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and President Reagan in 1986 during the previous immigration reform deliberations -successfully.

Otherwise, the November elections are likely to be ugly with Latino voters "paying back" those they perceive as being anti-Latino as well as purveyors of broken promises, under the slogan "no legalization, no re-election."

*Antonio Gonzalez is president of the William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI). Oscar Chacon is executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC)