02/14/2011 09:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Here we go again... or do we?

You can bet interested parties on all sides of the immigration debate held their breath during the final weeks of the lame duck session of the 111th Congress. When the clock, the year, and the congress all ran out, so did what the Conventional Wisdom considered President Obama's best shot at immigration reform.

But the conversation is not over by a long shot. People who are agitating for comprehensive immigration reform aren't going to drop it just because health care reform took up the first half-term of the Obama administration. People who passionately desire mass deportations, workplace raids, and repeal of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution (or at least say they do) realize they've got a hot issue that rallies the troops, and sends the base into spasm.

All the tribes were surprised when the President brought up the continuing need for comprehensive reform. Do the business interests, farm interests, liberals, Latinos, and other advocates of cutting a deal believe President Obama is willing to spend large amounts of political capital on this? During a period of severe economic distress, and high unemployment, and deep political division over immigration, it's not all together clear this is a fight the President wants to pick. On the other hand, it may be a fight he can't afford to avoid.

During the midterm elections, as independents and Democratic-leaning white voters abandoned the President's party in droves, Latinos gave Democrats two out of three of their votes, even more in critical races like the one that saw Sen. Harry Reid hold onto his seat in Nevada, and Jerry Brown take the governor's race in California from the formidably well-funded political neophyte Meg Whitman.

It's complicated.

For one thing, many people who hate the idea of a road to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers believe... or say they believe... legally-resident and native-born Latinos have no sympathy for those in the country illegally. They cite polls and statistics and studies that say it's soft-headed to believe legal residents facing high unemployment and downward pressure on their wages want to throw the door wide open to newcomers.

Legalization supporters are lucky to have the enemies they do: While soaking in the good news from public opinion researchers, Republicans have appeared dead set on squandering their advantages and the tilt in the playing field by alienating America's fastest-growing minority group one brown voter at a time. Commercials portraying Mexicans as an invading menace ran in districts from the border to the Southeast. Politicians in state houses around the nation scrambled to win the near term and lose the long term by talking about immigrants as a threat to the United States. While doing that, they imagined that millions of people whose parents and grandparents were those immigrants won't be offended, and will understand that anti-immigrant politicians aren't talking about them.

Yet, the pressures building up inside the problem aren't going to go away. When Republicans like Arizona Senator John McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham withdrew their support for comprehensive reform and began stressing "border security first," the Obama Administration took them at their word. Interdictions at the border are up, deportations are up, workplace raids are up, and the lousy job market has sent a million illegal immigrants home. Barack Obama gave his opponents their border security first, and has very little to show for it, since those same politicians simply continue to talk as if nothing at all has happened.

The symbolic argument is strong and holds tremendous appeal for millions of Americans. It goes something like, "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" People who did not follow the law, gain proper documents, and enter the American job market with the permission of the immigration authorities, goes the argument, should get no consideration at all from the system. Those people are right. The eleven million or so illegal residents in the country have no legal claim to long term legal residence in the United States.

But hold on a minute... the other side quickly pipes in, "What part of collapsing industries don't you understand?" Immigrant labor is the pillar upon which many industries leans. Immigrant labor creates profits that spin out into real estate markets, department stores, auto dealerships, and keep the country's food the cheapest in the developed world. In the near term, it's interesting to speculate on whether sending the 11 million home would reduce the unemployment rate among native-born citizens, or explode it. The effects would no longer be confined to the Northeast, Border Southwest and the West Coast. Wait until you see the Census figures from all kinds of places that never thought of themselves as Latino kind of places.

And as the two sides natter back and forth, trading shots over illegal immigration, we are careening toward a new presidential election citizen. Courage on both sides of the aisle would logically be in short supply. Risk-averse politics are the flavor of the age. It will be interesting to see whether John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Barack Obama can have an honest heart-to-heart about what's at stake for their country, even as they wrestle over the power and political high ground in the run-up to 2012.

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