The New York Times is reporting that the White House intends to jump-start a new debate on immigration reform this year, a move in line with promises made by the president during the campaign season. Not surprisingly, there is some trepidation among Democrats as to whether an issue as thorny as immigration might distract from this year's debate on health care, energy and education.
There are, to be sure, some serious risks in addressing immigration reform during an economic crisis. If the White House fails to persuade the public that immigration reform would have a positive impact on the economy, the president faces presenting Republicans with their first winning issue of 2009. The battle cry from the right will undoubtedly be that Democrats are bringing millions of new workers into an economy short on jobs.
Still, now might be the perfect time to debate the issue.
Perhaps the single most important voting bloc in the country is Hispanic voters, who represent the fastest growing minority population in the country. Even Karl Rove recognized how critical this group would be to building a stable, winning coalition, and he pushed for the GOP to target Hispanic voters. But, as with most smart political strategies suggested to the GOP in the last few years, no one who mattered paid any attention.
Instead, Republicans let their nativism run wild, making vicious anti-immigrant proclamations a center piece of their primary campaign. In doing so, they caused what might end up being the most significant realignment in American politics since the south abandoned Lyndon Johnson's Democratic Party. In 2004, John Kerry won the national Hispanic vote, 53-44. In 2008, Obama took it 67-31. In a state like New Mexico, that meant a Democrat winning by 15 points instead of losing by one. It also meant sizable electoral swings in other southwest states, including Colorado and Nevada, and played a significant role in Obama's victory in Florida.
Hispanic voters are the key to Obama's re-election. They are the key to his successor's election. What better time to solidify their support?
The political climate is ripe for it. Obama has admitted that, yes, immigration reform can be a minefield, but what better time to drag Republicans over a few mines? The GOP appears committed to their strategy of opposing the president as unanimously as possible; when they oppose immigration reform, when they once again begin their paranoid berating of immigrants, when they once again feed the panicked xenophobia of their ever diminishing base, they might well succeed in making Hispanics a reliable Democratic voting bloc for a generation.
Obama won't even have to sign immigration reform into law to succeed. He'll simply have to sound reasonable, reach out to the Hispanic community, and let the Republican Party do the rest.