Of all the issues that could add to the self-inflicted wounds of Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House, comprehensive immigration reform is perhaps at the top of the list. After the health care fiasco, the unpassable-in-the-Senate cap-and-trade legislation, and lingering public unhappiness with the stimulus, would Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid really turn their attention to comprehensive immigration reform in this election year?
The answer is yes. The latest indication that Obama plans to move ahead on his commitment to comprehensive reform is in a set of videos released by the White House to mark the president's first year in office. The videos, in which cabinet members explain their goals for the coming year, are on the White House website. In one of them, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano touts her department's efforts in 2009 to deploy "more people, technology, and resources" at the nation's borders. In 2010, Napolitano says, Homeland Security will work on aviation security, information sharing, border security, and: "We will pursue comprehensive immigration reform to address longstanding problems with our immigration system."
But just how committed is the White House to the passage of a reform bill? Napolitano's immigration pledge was brought up at Tuesday's White House briefing. "What's this going to look like?" a reporter asked press secretary Robert Gibbs.
"Well, I think one of the things the President will -- has talked about and one of the things you'll hear him mention [in the State of the Union speech] and in the coming days, similar to what I've said on cap and trade, and that is that if -- we've started a process on this and if Congress can put together the way forward, a coalition to get the way forward, then it's something we'll work through," Gibbs said.
Does that sound like a White House with a strong commitment to pursuing comprehensive immigration reform this year? Yes, Obama promised to work for reform in his first year in office. And yes, reform has support among some Democrats and some Republicans. But it also has a strong, organized opposition, also spread among Democrats and Republicans. A Gallup poll last August, headlined, "Americans Return to Tougher Immigration Stance," found the public "less favorable toward immigration than they were a year ago." Gallup found that 50 percent of those polled believed immigration should be decreased -- up from 39 percent the previous year -- while 32 percent said immigration levels should stay the same and just 14 percent said they should be increased. Gallup found that Republicans "have shifted most strongly toward decreasing immigration," but the pollster also found "Democrats and independents moving in the same direction, but to a lesser degree." Gallup concluded that lawmakers considering immigration reform "should do so mindful that Americans of all political persuasions are generally more resistant to immigration in broad measure than they were a year ago."
That's the public as a whole. Among Latino voters, it's a different story. Last November, a University of New Mexico poll of 1,400 Latino registered voters nationwide found that 62 percent said it was "extremely" or "very" important that Congress and the president pass an immigration reform bill before the 2010 congressional elections. Among those polled, the president's approval rating was 74 percent.
Is Obama going to ignore their concerns this year? "If Obama breaks the one major promise he made to Latino voters -- to deliver comprehensive immigration reform -- this will make it tough for him to face the Latino community as he campaigns for re-election," wrote the columnist Ruben Navarrette, Jr. a few days ago. "And Democrats can't afford a sizable bloc of voters becoming so disillusioned with Obama's version of 'hope and change' that they don't turn out to help re-elect him."
That's Obama's problem. Can he keep a campaign promise that is dear to an important constituency but unpopular with the public as a whole at a time when Democrats are terrified of further alienating voters already turned off by the Democratic agenda so far? Chances are, Obama will mention immigration in the State of the Union speech, just so he can say it's one of his priorities, and then sit back as Congress runs away from it. That's why spokesman Gibbs weaseled his way through the reform question -- "if we've started a process on this and if Congress can put together the way forward, a coalition to get the way forward, then it's something we'll work through." When it comes to comprehensive immigration reform in this election year, you're likely to hear talk but see no action.