Amid urgent priorities, Latinos push overhaul
By Maria Sacchetti | Boston Globe Staff
November 17, 2008
Before a huge crowd in San Diego last summer, Barack Obama vowed to make fixing illegal immigration a top priority as president, and Latinos nationwide responded with massive support for him on Election Day. Now, they are pressing him to keep his promise.
"We voted in large numbers for Obama," said Juan Salgado, board president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a nonprofit based in Chicago, Obama's training ground for immigration issues when he was a senator. "If we're sitting here two and a half years from now and absolutely nothing's been done, people are going to start asking questions."
From Cape Cod to California, activists on both sides of the volatile issue are girding for battle. Supporters of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants - most of whom are Latino - want Obama to press for a path to legal residency for them. Opponents say reform is impossible at a time when unemployment is soaring, and instead want tougher border security and less immigration to preserve Americans' jobs.
Many analysts are skeptical that Oba ma can navigate the political minefield of illegal immigration in his first year, while confronting the plunging economy and two wars. Still, groups on both sides are commissioning polls to gauge Americans' appetite for the immigration issue and assembling teams to file legislation for their cause next year.
"We're going to be fighting like crazy to keep it off the floor" in Congress, said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, the nation's largest group favoring immigration controls. "Now is not the time to be talking about this."
To start, many expect Obama to halt big immigration raids, such as last year's operation in New Bedford, and, perhaps later, push to allow illegal-immigrant students to pay resident tuition at colleges and universities.
Obama also must decide whether to ask Congress in March to reauthorize the e-verify program, a controversial worker database that is used to check employees' legal status. And he will possibly confront the deportation of his 56-year-old aunt, Zeituni Onyango, who is in the country illegally and who recently fled media attention in Boston for Cleveland.
Immigration advocates say Obama owes a debt to Latino voters, who voted 67 percent in his favor overall, according to a poll for America's Voice, a national communications campaign that favors legal residency for illegal immigrants. Latino support helped him capture such formerly Republican states as Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. Immigrant voters gave Obama the highest support - 78 percent of Latino immigrants voted for him, compared with 61 percent of US born-Latinos.
More than any recent president, Obama has a unique vantage point on immigration.
He is the son of a former exchange student and the nephew of an illegal immigrant, both from Kenya. He is only the fourth known president - and the first since Woodrow Wilson - to have a foreign parent, according to Library of Congress historian Gerard Gawalt.
Yet, Obama has had conflicted feelings about immigration, according to his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope." He admitted to "nativist sentiments" - including a flush of patriotic resentment when Mexican flags are waved at pro-immigrant rallies - and frustration when he was forced to use a translator to speak to his car mechanic. He worried that low-wage immigrants would depress wages and drain the nation's safety net.
During the campaign, Obama and rival John McCain let immigration disappear from the radar in English, though they battled over it in Spanish-language advertisements on the Internet.
In his platform, Obama listed border security as the first point in his plan. But he said he would also raise the number of legal immigrants, to keep families together and to meet the demand for jobs, and would allow illegal immigrants to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line to apply for citizenship.
It remains unclear which of those policies Obama would tackle first, and while his office is still assembling a transition team, it would not comment. But observers expect disagreement over when to address them in Congress.
Representative Xavier Becerra of California, a Democrat who is the assistant to the speaker and the highest-ranking Latino in the US House, said in an interview that he was optimistic Obama would start to tackle immigration reform in his first year. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a recent news conference that she wasn't aware of a timetable and that passing any measure would require a bipartisan effort.
Obama's incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said last year that an immigration bill couldn't pass during the first four-year term of a Democratic president. An aide for Emanuel said his priorities will match Obama's.
"Obama's going to have people in one ear who say, 'Wait wait, it's too controversial,' " said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. "And in the other, people will be saying, 'But this is why you got elected.' "
For now, immigrants are anxiously awaiting word on whether Obama will keep his promise and try to tackle illegal immigration in his first year. On a rainy sidewalk in East Boston one recent day, two immigrants from Colombia, Jorge Pizarro, a 44-year-old US citizen, and his friend Juan, an illegal immigrant, were skeptical.
"We'll see," Juan, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, said as he fished restlessly in his bag for a cigarette. "We can all get things done. The question is, will he or won't he?"
Both men said they are news junkies - in Spanish -and could recite the details of Obama's plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. It is this sort of integration that led Obama, in his book, to conclude that America had nothing to fear from immigrants, who had come here for the same reasons as other families 150 years ago, with hope for a better life.
Obama wrote that the United States was creating a "hypocrisy of a servant class" by allowing illegal immigration to grow without a sensible plan to deal with it.
It is a difference visible between Pizarro and his friend Juan, 42, who left the same city, Medellín, for Massachusetts.
Pizarro, who voted for Obama, had sneaked across the border illegally, married an American, and now has a job packing hot dogs. But Juan is a day laborer who stands on a corner every day waiting for odd jobs. Sometimes bosses pay well, and sometimes they don't pay him at all. Sometimes they let him climb a ladder without a safety harness.
He does not complain.
Instead, he said, he is paying his income taxes, learning English, and staying out of trouble. He wants to be a good candidate if an immigration overhaul ever passes.
"Today I have nothing, but if I had my papers, the door would swing open for me," he said with a wide smile.
Then his cellphone buzzed with word of a roofing job in Framingham. He rushed off to catch the train.