As he promised during the election, President Barack Obama recently announced immigration reform would become a top priority of his administration. This is welcome news for those who believe bringing undocumented workers out of the shadows is vital for the health of the nation -- and a humanitarian deed to keep families intact. However, we must also temper our expectations and expect a bitter fight. Even the president agrees.
“I know this is an emotional issue,” President Obama said in California on March 18th according to the New York Times. “I know that the people get real riled up politically about this.”
You can be sure opponents of immigration reform will bring back the “A” word with a vengeance. Screams of "amnesty" will be the first volley of an opposition campaign from those whose prime motivation is irrational fear. With a struggling economy, nativist sentiments are likely to be even more shrill than the last time Congress debated immigration reform in 2007. Republicans, eager to create a wedge issue to weaken the president’s popularity, will exploit nativist fears. In this hyper-charged political climate, the possibility for violence becomes very real.
I doubt supporters of immigration reform will be deterred by intimidation. However, we must also prepare ourselves for getting less than we expect from this struggle. President Obama has chosen to govern from the political center. While that seems a reasonable position in theory, in reality, the politics of consensus often leave everyone feeling shortchanged. In other words, the ultimate version of any immigration reform legislation will disappoint many Latino leaders and activists.
Let’s be clear about what Mr. Obama is proposing. The president’s plan calls for legislation that will impose fines and penalties for undocumented immigrants before they are brought into the legal system. There will be no free pass or amnesty. The legislation will also include increased border security and a crackdown on employers of the undocumented. A national system for verifying an employee’s immigration status is also part of the Obama plan. And this is the plan’s current state. Surely this will be watered down as it moves through congress. Personally, I would like to see a guest worker program as the centerpiece of this reform.
All the same, Hispanic leaders and activists must support the proposed legislation. To do otherwise, plays into the hands of the movement’s opponents. In fact, Mr. Obama is counting on the Latino community and progressive mainstream Americans to help push the measure through congress. So I urge you to get behind the efforts being led by U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago-area Democrat who is traveling across the country to build grassroots support.
Immigration reform will not be easy – and the legislation will not be perfect. But with unified public support, it will be possible. Sí se puede.