Monday, September 28, 2009

Commentary: Obama drops ball on immigration

Ruben Navarrette Jr. asks why the nation's chief multitasker can't take time for immigration reform.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- President Obama has placed the immigration reform community at the back of the bus.

This same president who insists the country can't wait to fix what he calls a broken health care system tells reformers to wait for him to get around to fixing what they consider to be an equally broken immigration system.

The same president who tried to juggle a half dozen major policy initiatives in his first few months in office now seems unsure of his ability to -- as he told Univision's Jorge Ramos in an interview last weekend -- "solve every problem at once."

And the same president who seems to understand that the longer he waits to accomplish health care reform, the more difficult it will be to get, doesn't seem to understand the same is true with immigration reform.

The political math for both kinds of reform only gets more difficult if Democrats lose seats in the House and Senate in next year's midterm elections, as is expected to happen.

During a recent speech to a black-tie gala for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Obama again promised action on immigration -- at some point. But he didn't give a timetable.

Obama and his advisers decided to attack health care reform before immigration reform. That obviously was a mistake.


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One thing that has thrown a wrench into the prospects for health care reform is the Joe Wilsonian concern that illegal immigrants might get free health care as a result of the reform process. Had that issue been addressed beforehand by giving illegal immigrants a path to earned legalization, that controversy might have been defused. Now Obama might walk away with nothing.

Be that as it may, it's clear that immigration reform just isn't a top priority for this administration.

The White House may view this as a niche issue, one with limited impact on any group other than Latinos. If so, that shows how little they know.

Business groups, law enforcement, border security advocates, organized labor, high-tech firms, university educators and others are all clamoring for immigration reform. For the record, Latinos care about the same issues the president seems to care about -- the economy, education and health care. But they also care about immigration because they see it as a test of political courage.

They're well-aware of the resistance out there to giving illegal immigrants a path to earned legalization, and so they're drawn to elected officials who are willing to brave those winds in order to do the right thing.

Does that include Obama? At this point, who knows? Time flies when a president is stalling.

It was just several months ago that White House officials were promising that Obama would address immigration reform before the end of the year. Now that timeline seems to have been pushed back to the beginning of 2010. And with midterm elections next November, we can expect Congress to invest -- at most -- five or six months on this issue.

For all intents and purposes, the curtain closes when Congress adjourns for summer recess next year, since members will spend most of the fall campaigning for re-election.

Given all that, immigration reform could easily lapse into Obama's second term, if there is a second term. For now, the president's reluctance to approach the issue in a meaningful way that goes beyond assurances to advocacy groups and promises to Hispanic audiences seems to be prompting members of Congress to take the reins.

Both Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, have promised to unveil immigration reform proposals in the coming weeks.

Schumer is already behind schedule, since he said he would come up with something by Labor Day. Still, this is all a notable departure from what happened under President Bush, where it was the White House that tried to lead Congress toward immigration reform.

Now it's the other way around. Call that what you want. But it's not leadership on an issue that demands nothing less.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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