During the presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly discussed the country's urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform offering a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the nation. He also promised to tackle this issue within the first 100 days of his administration. But recent signals from his close advisers indicate that he may delay this crucial matter until a second term. That could be a serious and costly mistake.
The President's nomination of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also sends an important signal about how his administration might handle immigration.
Napolitano has a reputation for being tough on curbing undocumented immigration. She was the first governor to call for National Guard troops to secure the U.S.-Mexico border; signed into law one of the most restrictive anti-immigrant bills; and enacted tough employer sanctions with strong penalties for hiring undocumented workers in the state of Arizona. Conversely, Governor Napolitano also vetoed many anti-immigrant pieces of legislation that could have had horrible repercussions if enacted and supported comprehensive immigration reform nationally. Yet, as the head of DHS she will need to balance immigration enforcement policy with a humane approach.
Someone familiar with the struggle for immigrant rights and a powerful defender of human rights for all workers is the newly appointed Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor. In that role, she can work from the inside to defend workers and immigrants, reversing many of the anti-immigrant tactics of the Bush Administration. But, she cannot be expected to carry the water alone.
New polling data released by America's Voice revealed that 78 percent of Americans consider illegal immigration a serious issue -- one that must be dealt with by enacting comprehensive reform (57 percent), not the enforcement-only approach favored by some conservatives (28 percent). Sixty-two percent believe the country would be in a better place if people who are currently in the United States without documents, stayed, worked legally and paid taxes -- a sharp contrast to the 21 percent who believe they should leave the country because they are taking away American jobs.
In this election, Latinos turned out in record numbers - many in reaction to anti-immigrant actions. An estimated 10 million went to the polls, voting for President Obama (67%) over Senator McCain (31%). Key battleground states that tend to trend Republican became viable and President Obama won in all of them; this is how Latinos voted in his favor: CO 73% to 23%; FL 57% to 42%; NM 69% to 30%; PA 72% to 28%; and VA 65% to 34%.
Immigration reform has been repeatedly postponed. It cannot wait another four-year term. We cannot have a systemic demand for exploitable cheap labor and continue to ignore their basic rights when they are here. President Obama said "I do not want two classes of citizens in this country. I want everybody to prosper. That's going to be a top priority." Currently, 12 million people in this nation are treated as second-class citizens -- living in the shadows of the nation.
The President has a unique opportunity. He will have the legislative numbers to make a push for immigration reform and he could reach across the aisle to get Republican support to produce a viable bi-partisan bill. He also has the goodwill of the American people.
As the son of an immigrant, President Obama knows the priority that this issue represents. Historically-oppressed groups see "hope" in this new administration. Immigration is a top priority that is close to the heart of the Latino community. It is extremely painful to witness the increasing degradation, humiliation, abuses, bigotry, murders and exploitation that we face -- whether citizen or undocumented.
Due to the exceptional circumstances of this election and the current economic recession, it is understandable that tackling the economic crisis will precede the immigration issue in the first 100 days. But, if this matter is not addressed by November 2010, Democrats will likely feel the effects of such neglect in the mid-term elections. If the focus of immigration policy relies on enforcement only without reform, this could cost the President much of the favor he has received. Latinos are not a captive constituency and immigration represents a top priority that could move this group to either side of the political spectrum.
Hector E. Sanchez is the Director of Policy and Research of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA).