President Barack Obama’s coming out in support of same-sex marriage has left me wondering when Mr. Obama will finally wager serious political capital to overhaul our immigration system.
His announcement came days after the White House Cinco de Mayo celebration, which I attended. The president knows how to play to an audience: he stood before us, affirming his support for comprehensive immigration reform, rewarded with chants of sí se puede--Yes We Can! When he challenged congressional Republicans to approve and send him a DREAM Act to sign into law that legalizes and puts college and military-bound undocumented immigrant students on a path to citizenship, applause mixed with cries of “4 More Years!” You can read more about my White House Cinco de Mayo experience here.
Obama said that one of the reasons for this political “evolution” is not wanting to explain to his daughters that some Americans aren’t afforded the same legal protections as others. Yet, how does he explain to Sasha and Malia that days after his Cinco pledge of support for immigration reform, he won’t follow it up with a big gesture such as a one-on-one broadcast television interview that sets the news cycle on fire? How is he going to tell his daughters that we’re in year four since candidate Obama promised immigration reform and that this continued delay means many of the estimated 12 million people who live and contribute millions of dollar to the economy will continue to live in fear that at any moment, La migra may pick up and deport a mom or dad, often times of a U.S. citizen?
I witnessed how tricky immigration reform is early on in my career as a journalist in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley--one of the poorest regions in the country with a population that is 90 percent Hispanic. Undocumented immigrant labor fills an insatiable need of otherwise law-abiding American citizens: farmers need their crops picked, families need their houses built, restaurants owners must feed hungry workers, and working moms need their homes cleaned. Yet I also observed school systems and emergency rooms crushed by waves of undocumented immigrants needing services. Left to fend for themselves, communities have demanded more help from the federal government that promised it, but mañana-reform will be addressed tomorrow because of today’s gridlock in Washington.
It is within this context that the restrictive immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama are born. But a state-by-state approach to reform smacks more of, on one hand of racism and nativism or on the other, tolerance than an economically and socially viable policy. Neither comprehensively regulates the immigrants who come and those that hire them, making sure all who are here are accounted for and fully contributing to services provided. What we need is for the president to show the same leadership on immigration reform that he chose to demonstrate on same-sex marriage--totally missing from his likely Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Immigration ranks far behind the “pocketbook” issues of the economy and jobs, but matters to an emerging voting bloc that feels invisible and taken advantage of by both parties.
Mr. Obama we know where you stand on immigration reform. America needs you to deliver--now.