The parameters of a new (and probably soon to be surreal) immigration reform battle were drawn up last week in Washington, D.C. On Thursday, June 25th, President Obama appointed Janet Napolitano as the administration's "point person" to help develop bipartisan, sensible legislation which will overhaul our long-outdated immigration system. Two hours before Obama's announcement, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, admitted the administration does not have the votes in Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.
Most Americans still underestimate the political, economic, and cultural significance of the 45 million Hispanics who live in the U.S. The national and local media have been cautious and parsimonious in dealing with Hispanics — documented and undocumented alike. Most Memphians already have noticed that thousands of our neighbors — the undocumented workers in our community — are forced to live in the shadows. These people pay rent, support local businesses, and pay state sales tax but enjoy few rights and only the slightest opportunity for true social mobility. They fill a vital role in our local and national economy, but anti-immigrant zealots in our country would prefer to forcibly send them all home.
Obama, in a June 19th speech at the Esperaza National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, articulated a clear plan to "regularize" undocumented workers who want to stay in the country. Under his plan, undocumented residents will pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English, and step to the back of the line for consideration as citizens, behind those who have obeyed all of our nation's baroque immigration laws. Lamentably, the far-right position characterizes all undocumented workers as law breakers, pure and simple. Yet, our immigration laws are so anachronistic and unfair (discriminating disproportionately against the poor, unskilled, and unschooled) that reasonable people would conclude the system is in fact broken. For example, each year, the U.S. issues 66,000 H-2B temporary work visas, yet the U.S. economy (even in its current recessed phase) requires 400,000 to 500,000 unskilled foreign workers, mostly in agriculture.
Anti-immigrant disciples, bolstered by the previous administration's "get-tough rhetoric," which featured televised immigration raids and mass deportations, created a national climate of fear and mistrust among Hispanics. The resultant political shift this past November — Obama picked up about 63 percent of the 11 million Hispanic votes cast nationwide — led to victory for the Democratic candidate in at least four crucial states: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico.
Hispanics in the United States are watching carefully as the administration cautiously rolls out its immigration reform strategy. They're also keeping an eye on recent overtures the president has made toward Latin America and Latin Americans. Obama has lifted meaningless travel and financial restrictions between Cuban Americans and their families in their homeland, and this past April, the president literally reached out to mischievous Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas. Obama has had fruitful, earnest dialogue with the presidents of Mexico and Brazil, and he's floated the idea of naming the popular Brazilian leader, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, president of the World Bank when his mandate expires at the end of 2010.
Obama's efforts in Latin America have paid off: In late May, Rio de Janeiro's leading newspaper, O Globo, published a poll conducted in six Western countries showing Obama as the most popular leader in the world. (The president's 78 percent approval rating was eight points higher than the Dalai Lama's.) But the president's world popularity, his outreach to Latin America, and his prudent changes to the previous administration's policies and attitudes in the region will quickly fade from memory if he cannot secure lasting immigration reform in the U.S.
The critical concerns of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Americans are fundamentally the same and include the expectation of equal protection under the law, access to economic security, stability and protection for families, and opportunities to delineate one's own destiny. These fundamental aspirations are out of reach for the millions who live in America undocumented. Rational, prudent, and comprehensive immigration reform would strengthen community and justice in America.
Michael J. LaRosa is associate professor of history at Rhodes College.