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What Obama's Approach to Hispanic Issues Says About His Leadership

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Two recent developments have proven that the Obama administration is serious about Latino issues. I never doubted the president's sincerity or commitment, but I had gone on record as saying that Hispanic concerns would take a backseat in the early days of his administration.

I may - and this is as disturbing for me to write as it is for you to read - have been wrong. Furthermore, the president's recent decisions have implications far beyond the interests of the Hispanic community. They potentially reveal the man for who he is and give some insight into what kind of leader he will be.

First, there is the news that Obama will press for immigration reform this year, which would fulfill a promise he made while campaigning for (and overwhelmingly winning) Hispanic votes. The president's plan is vague at this point, and it reportedly involves the usual goals of increasing border security and convincing Mexico to hold on to their own people. The big-ticket item, of course, is the proposal to give the 12 million immigrants who already live in America some pathway to citizenship.

Yes, it's the return of the dreaded "amnesty" provision.

I have, along with every other Latino writer, discussed this topic before, so I won't rehash the arguments in depth. Suffice to say that conservatives believe that legalizing these workers is a slap in the face of law and order, and a surefire path to economic collapse.

The fairness issue can be debated, although let's be blunt in pointing out that many of the people screaming about justice are actually just pissed that they had to endure overhearing Spanish in the grocery store. There's nothing principled about their fear or hatred.

As for economic issues, I have a hard time understanding how more American jobs are going to be lost to people who supposedly have already stolen them. In fact, as columnist Ruben Navarrette has stated, a case could be made that "to help U.S. workers, we need to get the illegal immigrants legal and force employers to pay all workers higher wages and stop playing one group of workers off another."

In any case, GOP members are hardly the people to lecture anyone on what's good for the economy... I will refrain from additional cheap shots.

The second announcement from the Obama administration that got my attention was about Cuba. The president intends to make it easier for Cuban Americans to travel to the island and to send remittances. This decision - announced during what was apparently the first bilingual White House press conference - is a welcome first step in ending the arbitrary and counterproductive policy we've long held toward that country.

As usual, right-wingers are screaming about going soft on communism, as if our approach had done anything to bring democracy to Cuba. After all, it's been a half-century or so; when can we expect to see results?

In addition, it wasn't like the travel restrictions made any sense. Under the guise of getting tough on Castro, immigrants who live in Florida could rarely, if ever, visit their families. But over the years, multiple delegations of governors, members of Congress, and businesspeople were routinely allowed to land on the island. They would talk about trade issues with Cuban officials, all while saying, "We don't officially recognize you, now please pass some of that kick-ass rum you guys make." Basically, as long as the potential to make money was involved, we put a hold on our principled stand against oppression.

Obama's decision will, in all likelihood, make it easier for immigrants to see their families, and perhaps it will be a catalyst for much-needed change. After all, a massive 71 percent of Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba. It's difficult to get that many Americans to agree about anything, except maybe that Scrubs is long past being funny.

Regardless of how these two proposals turn out, it is reassuring that Obama hasn't forgotten how millions of Latinos set high expectations for his administration. Furthermore, it's now clear that he didn't just toss around promises like confetti in the hopes of garnering votes. The president is tackling controversial issues when he has more than enough drama to occupy him.

Few would criticize Obama if he took a temporary pass on hot-button social problems to focus on minor inconveniences (such as a faltering economy or a couple of wars). Indeed, many commentators expected him to do just that, and Republicans are delighted to lambaste him for "trying to do too much," especially when his decisions supposedly affect a small percentage of Americans.

But this is the crucial point. Obama can apparently see how disparate problems - such as immigration reform - tie into larger issues, like how our economy functions. It's promising that he understands that concepts interlock and feed off one another, and necessitate a big-picture approach. He is thus far removed from someone who skips the analysis and goes with his gut (a "decider," if you will). A person like that usually obsesses on a few basic agenda items, then becomes flummoxed when myriad "unforeseen" disasters occur and snowball. With hope, that will not happen to Obama.

In addition, and perhaps more important, these recent developments indicate that Obama is willing to fight, even when it would be politically easier to skip the tough battles. If that's true, these decisions are not about kissing up to a key constituency. They are about improving a tattered nation.

And that, of course, is good news for the entire country.