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Heading to White House Meeting on Immigration, Paging Governor Napolitano

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Well, this ought to be interesting.

In a couple hours, I'll join Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and 130 immigrant advocates, business and labor leaders, and law enforcement representatives to discuss immigration policy at the White House.

This meeting comes amidst a growing chorus of criticism and concern from Latino leaders and immigrant advocates who believe that Secretary Napolitano is emphasizing the continuation of controversial Bush-era immigration enforcement tactics and downplaying the need for real, comprehensive immigration reform. This, combined with the fact that President Obama is now saying it will be 2010 before Congress fixes immigration.

Jorge Ramos-- arguably the most trusted name in Spanish language news-- penned a Miami Herald column yesterday about the current state of affairs.  In the column, Ramos lays out the risks of moving forward too fast, especially with the health care debate dominating politics. He goes on to describe the risks of delaying immigration reform.

An excerpt from Ramos' column, translated into English here:

Rushing reform in a Congress currently dealing with a host of other issues could be fatal.  It has happened to us before in 2006 and 2007.  But waiting too long could destroy the legitimate hope of millions.  George Bush delayed movement on immigration reform for 7 years, and when he wanted to move it, he had no political capital left.

Ramos adds a note on the political consequences of inaction for Latino voters:

Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 - 67 percent - in exchange for his promise of legalizing undocumented immigrants.  They are not going to forget that promise. I think Hispanics and Latinos can wait for the President a little bit more.  There is no other choice.  He makes his own action calendar.  But if nothing happens in 2010, Latino voters are going to remind Obama about that unfulfilled promise in the next election, giving what they got.

Ramos is right on both points. Obama is committed to reform and given the way the health care reform debate is dominating American politics, a brief delay is understandable. But, unless the President delivers swiftly on his promise of action, the political consequences in 2010 could be significant.  No, it's not that Latino immigrants and their loved ones will suddenly vote for a Republican Party that seems bent on giving Hispanic voters the back of the hand at every turn. It's that it will be supremely difficult to mobilize these voters to come out again in the record numbers of 2008 if the change they voted for fails to materialize.

In other words, if fervent hopes for immigration reform turn into dashed ones, many Latino immigrant voters who turned out for the first time in 2008 are likely to sit out 2010. 

But to bring us back to today's meeting for a moment... what about DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano?

Many of us applauded Napolitano's appointment to DHS as a step in the right direction.  As Governor of Arizona, Napolitano showed skill and conviction when advocating for comprehensive immigration reform in a very hostile climate. Yes, we must enforce the laws, she would argue, but the best way to do so is to fix the laws-- through reform-- so that they can be effectively enforced.  In a brilliant op-ed published by the Washington Post in 2007, Governor Napolitano said, "Consider what happens when we have an immigration system that is based on silent amnesty and that is unenforced and unenforceable. To look "tough," what little enforcement we have ends up being arbitrary and unfair."

We were initially heartened, then, when President Obama anointed Secretary Napolitano as the President's point person on the immigration reform effort at a pivotal White House meeting on June 25th.  At that meeting President Obama met with over 30 key Congressional leaders from both parties, and made it clear that he is committed to moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform in this Congress.

So how is the President's point person on immigration reform doing to date?

During a recent speech, which was billed as a major address on immigration, Secretary Napolitano stated that reforming the broken immigration system "will be the responsibility of the Congress" but that "we are not going to sit by at the Department of Homeland Security and wait for change in the laws.  We're going to enforce the laws that are, but we can reform what we're doing as we wait for reform in the law." Talk about a change of tune.

In a recent column, Maribel Hastings (former Washington Correspondent for La Opinión, the largest Spanish language newspaper in the country, and now Senior Advisor to America's Voice) criticized Napolitano's inclination to "wait" for reform of the law, rather than pushing to make reform a reality:

As governor of Arizona, Napolitano took every opportunity she could to talk about the urgency of reforming our immigration system, so that laws could be enforced in an effective way.  It is of no use if we continue to have millions of undocumented immigrants among us, she once said, a sort of "silent amnesty" as she described it.  She said that physical walls don't work because there will always be a way to get over or around them... Now she barely mentions the issue of comprehensive immigration reform that she is supposed to promote, like during the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in June, when she dedicated the bulk of her speech to addressing the need to be prepared to deal with natural or manmade disasters.

With respect to Napolitano's statement that it is up to Congress to change the law, Hastings added:

It is true that Congress has the final say on what bills it approves or rejects. But there is also something called "leadership," and she is expected to demonstrate hers while looking for consensus with regards to immigration reform. Leadership that Obama, who is ultimately her boss, must also demonstrate, as well as a Democrat-led Congress that controls the legislative agenda.

Speaking of leadership, these leading voices speak to the hopes and fears of millions of Latino families - many of them "mixed status" families, composed of citizens, voters, permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants. They also speak eloquently to what is at stake, politically, if the Administration and Congress fail to pass real reform.

I can only hope that the President's point person on this crucial reform soon demonstrates renewed clarity and purpose. That she begins, as she once did as Arizona Governor, to educate Members of Congress and the American people about how comprehensive immigration reform will truly solve the illegal immigration problem in a practical and humane way.

Unless what happens in Arizona stays in Arizona, it's time for a little more leadership on immigration in Washington.

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