Monday, December 28, 2009

Opinion: Navarrette: Obama administration punting on immigration reform

By Ruben Navarrette

San Diego Untion-Tribune
Posted: 12/05/2009

The paradox of the Obama administration's plan to achieve comprehensive immigration reform — one of these days, when it gets around to it, be patient, yada yada — is that the agency responsible for removing illegal immigrants is now supposed to find a way for millions of them to stay. Given that agency's law enforcement bent, don't be surprised if it is much better at the former than the latter.

The Department of Homeland Security is where you'll find U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is the administration's point person for immigration reform.

Many Latino liberals naively hoped that, as a Democrat, Napolitano would conjure up a kinder and gentler version of immigration enforcement, such as a decrease in deportations and an end to workplace raids. This hasn't happened.

What has is that, under this administration, ICE is supposedly doing more to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants — when it's not praising those who don't. Homeland Security recently unveiled an effort to spotlight the hundreds of thousands of companies that use the "e-verify" program, a free Web-based system that compares information from the Employment Eligibility Verification Form (I-9) against federal databases to verify workers' eligibility. The campaign recognizes businesses that use the system in the hopes that consumers keep that in mind when making decisions.

Fine. But besides handing out blue ribbons, ICE needs to make more arrests of employers who ignore the law in addition to rounding up the illegal immigrants they hire. The government should not be shy about continuing work-site raids, but the net needs to be much wider and catch bigger fish.

Appearing with Napolitano at the news conference to announce the new initiative was John Morton, assistant secretary for ICE. A former deputy assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush Justice Department, Morton recently made headlines by trying to rein in renegade Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., who is enforcing immigration law despite the fact the administration has denied him the authority to do so. Addressing the issue of employers, Morton dished some plain truth.

"The main reason people enter the United States illegally is the opportunity to work," he said.

He's right. These people don't come for welfare, health care or public schools. They don't come as part of an invasion force that is intent on converting the United States into a Spanish-speaking nation so it can become part of Mexico. Illegal immigrants come to work — mostly at jobs in which Americans have lost interest. Morton also stressed the importance of employers following the rules by hiring only those workers who are legally eligible to work.

Yet, enforcement is only part of the equation. During a recent speech to the Center for American Progress, Napolitano spelled out the rest. Borrowing language from the Bush administration, she called for a "three-legged stool" that includes enforcement, pathways for legal immigrants, and "a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here."

Enforcement is the province of Homeland Security. But Napolitano doesn't seem all that eager to deal with the other two legs of the stool. Despite saying that immigration reform "has been punted from year to year, from Congress to Congress, from administration to administration," she did the same thing. She punted.

"When Congress is ready to act," Napolitano said, "we will be ready to support them."

When Congress is ready to act? Is she kidding? Congress is never ready to act on difficult issues that make enemies and threaten to terminate the comfy jobs of legislators. It's true that, according to the Constitution, legislation comes from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and not the other. But it's also true that, as a practical matter, the toughest issues don't get dealt with unless there is strong and vocal leadership from the White House.

Latinos care about a range of issues. Still, many of the Latino voters who helped put Barack Obama in the White House expect him to keep his promise and deliver comprehensive immigration reform. They see the issue as a test of political courage. Instead, all they've gotten are more promises, stall tactics and pushed deadlines.

Obama showed up for the debates on an economic stimulus, health care, climate change, education reform and troop strength in Afghanistan. Why? It's because he obviously cares about those issues. So Obama doesn't care about fixing the immigration system?

Now he tells us.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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