March 16, 2009
By Steven T. Dennis
Roll Call Staff
Hispanic lawmakers, with the support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are in the throes of a nationwide campaign to pressure President Barack Obama to put immigration reform on the priority list.
“The president is silent,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who is leading a 19-city tour to build grass-roots support for comprehensive reform. “If the president doesn’t set it as part of his agenda, it won’t happen.”
Obama so far has barely mentioned immigration as he focuses on the faltering economy. Gutierrez and others in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had urged Obama to call for comprehensive reform this year in his joint address to Congress last month, to no avail.
Gutierrez and other Hispanic Members want Obama to first use his executive authority to stop raids and deportation of immigrants, which they say splits up families. Then, they want him to push hard for comprehensive legislation.
“We are going to go from city to city and church to church until the voices of our community are heard by the president,” Gutierrez said.
Obama is in a difficult political position. He won the election in part because of unprecedented support from Hispanic voters who heard his promise to fight for immigration reform, yet he also faces the difficult calculus of pushing to legalize illegal workers at a time when millions of Americans are losing their jobs.
Yet Hispanic lawmakers and many Congressional Democrats say they don’t think the issue can wait. After a series of attempts under former President George W. Bush’s administration, lawmakers in both parties were unsuccessful in reaching agreement on a way forward on the politically volatile issue.
Gutierrez enlisted some high-profile Members on his national tour – including the Speaker at a stop on March 7 in San Francisco.
Pelosi spoke passionately about the need for comprehensive immigration reform soon and urged an end to enforcement raids that fracture families, calling the policy “un-American.”
“Who in our country would not want to change a policy of kicking in doors in the middle of the night and sending a parent away from their families?” Pelosi asked. “It must be stopped. It must be stopped. … The raids must end. The raids must end.”
However, a House Democratic leadership aide noted that the Speaker did not set a timetable for action and said leadership will coordinate the timing with the White House and the Senate. Democratic leaders in both chambers widely acknowledge the issue must be addressed at some point but have not committed to a timeline.
Nonetheless, Pelosi’s endorsement of the goals of Hispanic lawmakers has buoyed fresh calls for legislation.
“I saw a much more human side of Nancy Pelosi,” Gutierrez said. “We hope the rest of America responds as she did that day.”
Gutierrez’s campaign attempts to humanize immigration by featuring children who are U.S. citizens bereft of their illegal immigrant parents. The events are being held in large churches, an attempt to bring a Biblical and moral dimension to the fight, Gutierrez said.
The attendees sign petitions to Obama, which will be presented to him when Hispanic lawmakers meet with the president, Gutierrez said.
“Look, you have it within your power to stop these separations of families. You stated it as a goal and you made a commitment,” Gutierrez said of Obama. “He made it to me when I endorsed him. And we want him to keep his promise. It’s as simple as that.”
Hispanics understand that Obama needs to focus first on the economy but don’t want to be told to wait another year for action, Gutierrez said.
“How long do we wait? … The families can’t wait,” he said. “Explain that to the three 9-year-olds in Providence, R.I., who testified that they lost their dads. Sorry, you’re just going to have to grow up without a father?”
Hispanic Members have already met with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who agreed to review the department’s policies on raids that round up illegal workers after a raid in Bellingham, Wash.
“I’m tired of the policy where we wanted to tell the American people, ‘You’re safer because we got the Windex-wielding woman who works at Wal-Mart at 1 a.m.,’” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said enforcement efforts should be redirected to fighting gangs, smugglers and other criminals, instead of immigrant workers.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Friday that Obama is still committed to fixing the broken immigration system.
“The president is serious about immigration reform. He said we will start the debate this year, and this continues to be the plan,” Shapiro said. “Anytime a raid like the recent one in Washington state happens, it is a reminder of how much work we need to do to address a broken immigration system.”
Obama said last week that he has started to talk about the prospects of moving forward with legislation.
“But obviously we’ve got a lot on our plate right now,” the president said. “And so what we can do administratively, that’s where we’re going to start.”
A House Republican aide close to the issue said the GOP does not expect Obama to push hard this year given the state of the economy, saying: “The Obama team is smart, and they are looking at this and realizing this is a very tough sell.”
“How do you make the argument when you have 7 million illegal immigrants in the workforce and you have 12.5 million Americans out of work?” the aide asked.
But Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group backing legalization of illegal immigrants, said his sense is that the Obama White House would like to do something as early as this fall, but the timing will depend on everything from the state of the economy to Obama’s poll ratings to the status of the rest of his agenda.
“I don’t think they’ll have a moment of truth discussion until this summer,” he said.
Sharry said the high unemployment rate would have an impact, though, with likely less emphasis in the legislation on adding new work visas.
And while opponents will surely argue that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans, supporters will argue that ending the shadow economy would level the playing field among employers and add to tax revenues, Sharry said.