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The Senate Immigration Framework and SB 1070: Obama's Unflattering Moment of Truth

The Senate Immigration Framework and SB 1070: Obama's Unflattering Moment of Truth

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In a move reminiscent of China's Hundred Flowers Campaign, Pres. Obama invited Senate leaders to put forward a proposed framework for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), and then promptly discounted any hope of passing it, stating he doubted Congress's appetite to pass such legislation. Coupled with his lukewarm response to the Arizona's legislative reign of terror against immigrants and people of color, it's difficult to know where Obama stands on immigration.

Exhibit A. Pres. Obama urged Congress in mid-March to move forward with an immigration reform plan, pledging "to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus on this important issue so we can continue to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform." Senators Schumer and Graham took up the invite, printing an op-ed piece in the Washington Post and laying out a four-part planbalancing enforcement with a humane solution for America's undocumented:

  1. biometric Social Security cards to ensure that undocumented workers cannot get jobs
  2. strengthening border security and interior enforcement
  3. creating a process for admitting temporary workers
  4. implementing a "tough but fair path" to legalization for those already here

The devil of course is in the details. Civil libertarians and immigrant's rights advocates oppose national ID cards like the biometric social security card, particularly when possessing such a card is a condition for political participation and employment. In other countries, government's have used their power to issue, withhold and regulate identification cards to politically and economically disenfranchise opponents and intimidate ethnic minorities. When the right to work and vote is predicated on presenting a national identification card, the national government wields enormous power. When taken together with increased interior enforcement, fear of heavy-handed treatment of immigrants and people of color by law enforcement is a real threat. Nor is opposition strictly reposed on the pro-immigrant side. America's latter-day Tea Party Know-Nothings have no interest in opening up the borders for foreign guest workers, or giving what they would consider "amnesty" to the undocumented. Still, the framework provides something everyone wants and wants badly, and what could be a real opportunity for compromise among the various factions on immigration.

Along these lines, Democratic Party Senate leaders, Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, and Bob Menendez last week issued a Senate legislative reform framework, which Greg Siskind has neatly summarized here. Of note in the proposal, beyond the Schumer-Graham four-point plan, are incorporation into CIR of the Dream Act and AgJobs , paths to permanent residency for graduates of U.S. universities with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and the recapture of unused visa numbers, along with a clearing of the backlog of family-based preference visas.

Particularly notable was the absence of Sen. Lindsey Graham for the framework proposal. As reported in the press, Graham's pull-out was attributed to Harry Reid's decision to push legislation in the Senate on immigration reform and energy simultaneously, which Graham claims dooms both efforts. With increasingly rabid right-wing voters back home in South Carolina losing their grip in the face of any effort to provide any quarter to Obama or Congressional Democrats on any legislative issue, the convention wisdom is that Graham had to pull back.

Could be. Or maybe Lindsey Graham was not taken in by Obama's milquetoast urgings on immigration reform. Perhaps Graham has taken the measure of the President on the issue, and concluding that the only hope of passage for immigration reform, like healthcare reform, would entail Obama's committed leadership, backed away. Having observed the President over the past year, Graham might have observed that Obama might grandstand on the issue but not actually risk political capital to get an immigration bill out of the Senate. Without committed Presidential leadership to round up Senate Democrats, or political cover from Obama, it's just as likely that Graham, a politician with national aspirations and some tendencies towards bipartisanship, saw no gain in crossing over on a bill that not even his partisan adversaries fully supported.

If so, Graham's withdrawal was prescient. In a tour de force of political dithering, Pres. Obama last week aboard Air Force declared that "there may not be an appetite" for immigration reform this year, and that "I need some help on the Republican side". Recognizing his blunder, Obama's press office went into damage control and back-tracked, calling the Senate Framework "an important first step".

On the issue of who's hungry for immigration reform... it's the President who appears to lack the appetite, the appetite he displayed on health care reform, an appetite for victory that got the bill passed. The pro-reform Senate caucus needs help as well. They need a President who shows an unwavering commitment on the issue, not one who will cut off his fellow Democrats at the knees the moment they introduce a legislative framework to move forward and get a bill passed.

I'm really starting to wonder if Obama gets it when it comes to immigrants, their families and immigration issues as a whole. He continues to treat immigration and immigrants as a "them", not an "us" issue. He treats the our immigration crisis as we weren't dealing with America's fastest growing demographic, as if we weren't con fronted with the crisis of our Nation's mixed status families, as if his Administration's policy on immigration raids and meek acceptance of police harassment of immigrants under the pretext of 287(g) were problems happening in some other country, not our own.

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Exhibit B. This country could have used a presidential moment of moral clarity in connection with Arizona's recently passed anti-immigrant hate law SB 1070. Instead, we received a flaccid statement from Obama that the law is "misguided". What the country needed was an immediate declaration that the Justice Department would do everything in its power to ensure that that such an abominable law, a law harkening back to the days of Jim Crow and South Africa's apartheid pass laws , would never be enforced. No such reassurance was forthcoming however, only that Attorney General Eric Holder was considering options.

The absence of presidential leadership on this issue is chilling. It has precipitated despair not just for immigrants and their families, but also for his ideological supporters. Many of us supported Pres. Obama because we believed that through his leadership and biography, our country would move more closely, though imperfectly, to a post-racial condition in the United States. I fear that Obama's failure to set a moral marker here betrays the limitations of Obama's vision of immigrants in America. For Obama, SB 1070 is about an immigrant "them", not about an American "us". And with this lack of vision, the President has displayed a concomitant absence of leadership, again reminding us how far this country has yet to travel to achieve true justice for all.

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