By Jared Allen
Posted: 01/13/09 07:31 PM [ET]
Hispanic Democrats are changing their strategy to get a sweeping rewrite of immigration laws passed, focusing attention on controversial workplace raids that have increased in the absence of a legislative fix.
A handful of House and Senate leaders are set to meet this week to lay out a new course, which participants said will be centered around a grassroots campaign designed to elicit a greater level of awareness over the ramifications of a “raids-first” immigration policy.
Participating in the strategy session will be the highest-ranking Hispanic in Congress, House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), as well as Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), CHC Immigration Task Force Chairman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who after Sen. Ken Salazar’s (D-Colo.) imminent retirement will be the only remaining Hispanic Democrat in the Senate.
The group’s renewed effort will complement its ongoing push for so-called “Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” which failed to pass in both the 109th and 110th Congresses. A number of Republicans and some Democrats object to a provision in that proposal that would put more than 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States on a path to citizenship.
The lawmakers will need to convince President-elect Obama to risk backing the controversial measure that attracts attention from conservative talk radio hosts and blogs. Immigration was not at the top of Obama’s priority list on the campaign trail, and while the president-elect continues to reiterate his promise to address the issue, many insiders say he is unlikely to push for it until his second term.
Even with an expanded majority in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, Hispanics in Congress believe passing legislation will be impossible without getting out their message on the humanitarian toll of the raids.
To that end, Hispanics are targeting three main groups they believe are most in need of a re-education on the workplace raids issue: the general public, Republicans and President-elect Obama.
“I don’t believe that the president-elect … grasps and understands the magnitude of the damage that is currently being caused [by the raids],” Gutierrez said. “I don’t believe he does.
“He understands the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” Gutierrez continued. “What I don’t think we’ve been able to bring to his attention in an effective manner is the plight of the millions of undocumented workers.”
For more than a year, Hispanics have been trying through town hall meetings to bring attention to the human cost of workplace raids. Such efforts are intended to combat the drumbeat of conservative support for the raids and other law enforcement-based efforts.
But one additional constituency they are now targeting is the president-elect himself.
Gutierrez said part of the goal is to somehow resolve the “fundamental contradiction” that exists between Obama’s calls for immigration reform and his lack of public commitment to ending the workplace raids begun under the Bush administration, which have resulted in the mass deportation of hundreds of immigrants.
Even though Obama has given Hispanics a clear message that comprehensive reform is a priority of his, the Hispanic Caucus has received no indication from Obama officials that the president-elect intends to reverse the workplace raids policy.
Questions about the policy should take center stage at Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearing of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), Obama’s choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
“We need to work on that,” Gutierrez said of Obama’s position on the raids.
“We have to somehow figure out how we resolve the fundamental contradiction that exists between a president-elect who says at his acceptance speech in Denver that Americans should come to understand why it’s unfair to separate a mother from her children,” yet is consenting to using, “in an unprecedented manner, the forces of the federal government to deport a record number of undocumented workers,” the Illinois Democrat said.
Over the weekend, Gutierrez joined Velazquez at one such anti-raid town hall meeting in Harlem, N.Y.
“This is the moment,” Velazquez told local reporters. “[Obama] has to show leadership in a very courageous way.”
While congressional Hispanics are buoyed by the knowledge that their constituents played a major role in Obama’s election, they recognize that it’s unrealistic to expect Obama alone to pull immigration reform across the finish line.
With their agenda fixated on the economy, Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate have said next to nothing about immigration since the election.
And despite the addition of Democrats to the Senate, other changes in the chamber may result in any immigration overhaul facing a greater uphill fight than even two years ago.
Between Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) personal health problems and expected charge for healthcare reform, Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) uncertain legislative portfolio and Sen. Mel Martinez’s (R-Fla.) decision to step down at the conclusion of his term, top Democrats worry that much of the Senate momentum may have been lost altogether.
Asked about the president-elect’s commitment to immigration reform, transition officials referenced Obama’s Monday night appearance on Univision.
“No one has been more devastated by our economic crisis than the Latino community, particularly because many Latinos are employed by the construction industry where there are not houses being built,” Obama said. “But I’m not going back on my commitment.
“We will work with Luis Gutierrez, with people of both parties who are committed to comprehensive immigration reform; I will ask John McCain for help, who has been a leader on this issue, and his position on the issue is not very different from mine,” the president-elect continued. “My goal is for the process towards reform to start this year. I cannot promise that this will happen in the first 100 days — we will be looking at critical issues particularly facing this economic crisis.”