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Al Hunt: Obama can’t afford to ignore immigration

March 02, 2009 - Posted by Douglas Rivlin

Albert R. Hunt, the distinguished former Wall Street Journal columnist who now writes for Bloomberg, makes a compelling case that President Obama will not be able to hide from the immigration issue for long.  (His Bloomberg column was also picked up by the International Herald Tribune.)


He makes two basic arguments: far from cancelling immigration reform, the current economic situation requires immigration reform; and the politics of immigration – and especially the Latino vote – has fundamentally changed things.


On politics, Hunt observes that key Democrats like President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York (now head of the Immigration Subcommittee), used to caution Democrats to stay away from taking on immigration reform.  Now, based on how immigration has performed as an issue in the last several election cycles, they have changed their tunes.


Earlier fears that immigration had hurt Democrats in 2006 in an Illinois House race and a special election in Massachusetts were trumped by several dozen races where immigration-bashing failed and advocates of the Kennedy-McCain- type measure succeeded.


Dramatic illustrations came in the heavily Hispanic states of New Mexico and Arizona. Three years ago, nine of the 11 House members from those states were Republicans; today eight of the 11 are Democrats, in large part because of Hispanic voters.


On the economics of immigration reform, Hunt observes:


There are industries -- agriculture, food service, construction -- that rely on immigrants. They are going through down times, yet they’ll need more people when they bounce back.


Indeed, Tamar Jacoby, a conservative scholar from the Manhattan Institute who founded ImmigrationWorksUSA, a coalition of business groups at the state level supporting an immigration overhaul, told Hunt:


Immigration reform may be harder in the middle of a recession, to make the case that we need more workers.  But the only way out of a recession is to grow out of it, and we need workers to do that.


Getting immigration reform onto a crowded agenda will not be easy for pro-reform advocates and law-makers, but one good sign that Democrats will fight for reform, the 2010 campaign of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada.  Nevada’s voters are now about one-quarter Hispanic and they played a critical role in swinging the state to the Democrats and Obama in 2008.

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