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Obama Team: Green Light/Yellow Light on Immigration Reform

February 17, 2009 - Posted by Shuya Ohno

When a new President takes office maybe it should be expected that a few mixed signals are sent on major policy goals, especially in times of economic confusion, which is to put it mildly.  Take immigration, for example.  Already this week, we are seeing two senior officials who will play a big role in immigration reform moving forward – or not – sending different sets of signals.


Today’s includes a piece by Gebe Martinez, Latino politics columnist, on the apparent 180-degree immigration turnaround by the President’s top aid, Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel.  The former Illinois Congressman, who was once a chief opponent of the Democrats addressing immigration reform and famously cautioned it was the “third rail” of politics – likely to burn who ever touched it – now seems to be directing the Obama Administration towards a much more friendly stance when it comes to immigrants and immigration-related matters.


Martinez observes:


[N]ow, as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel is removing roadblocks that stand in the way of some of the legislative agenda benefitting immigrants, ethnic minorities and their advocates.


Emanuel, a shrewd political mind who also epitomizes the rough and tumble politics of his hometown of Chicago, seems to be firing up the bulldozer on immigration-related issues he once resisted. – Gebe Martinez, “Rahm’s Immigration Turnabout,” The Politico, February 17, 2009.


Chief among Mr. Emanuel’s early accomplishments was the state Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) regulations barring states from extending health insurance to legal low- and moderate-income immigrant children and pregnant women.  The President signed a waiver of this exclusionary policy into law with much fanfare – and by all accounts, much effort by Mr. Emanuel to make it happen.  Also on Martinez’ list is Mr. Emanuel’s aggressive stand when it comes to the 2010 census and how immigrant, ethnic, and minority communities will be counted. 


Veteran immigration reform advocate Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, the former Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, told Martinez,


“Emanuel is a symbol of going from running away from immigration to someone who now says, ‘Lean into immigration. It will help Democrats.’”


If the Administration keeps this up, it is a very encouraging sign for those who want President Obama to lead the fight for sensible immigration policies.


In contrast, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano sat down for an interview with National Public Radio Monday and was extremely cautious in her view of immigration reform, which is causing some consternation among pro-reform advocates.


She continued the emphasis on enforcement she inherited from the previous Administration while remaining vague – even dismissive – of the need for legislative reform.  Asked about what we should do with the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., the Secretary responded:


Ultimately, that's for the Congress to decide, and at some point in time, I think the president and the Congress will work out when it is appropriate to take that topic up again. But right now we're focusing on human traffickers — those who are really exploiting this illegal market to great financial gain. We're going after those in our country illegally who have also committed other crimes. We're going after those who are in our jails and prisons who are also in our country illegally to make sure that once they complete their sentence, they're immediately subject to deportation. – Secretary Janet Napolitano, NPR Interview, February 16, 2009.


Perhaps it is for the President and Congress to decide, but the Secretary had better be making it clear that it needs to happen.  As we have seen for two decades, all the enforcement in the world doesn’t matter much if your immigration system is completely out of whack. 


We hope the various parts of the Obama Administration will compare notes and come out forcefully and clearly for:


  • Establishing a legal immigration system individuals, families, and employers will use rather than circumvent;

  • Getting the millions of hard-working, tax-paying immigrants here illegally into the system so that everyone is playing by the same set of rules;

  • Making sure enforcement priorities make sense so that our country is safer, our tax money is not wasted chasing, arresting, and deporting the wrong people, and so the American people gain confidence that immigration rules are being fairly and equally enforced; and

  • Putting all of America’s workers on a legal and level playing footing so that their rights are protected.


As we noted last week when the Migration Policy Institute released its evaluation of Secretary Napolitano’s Dept. of Homeland Security, there is only so much the agency can do on its own without legislation. 


And for legislation to happen, clear and consistent leadership must come from the President, his Chief of Staff, his Homeland Security Secretary, and everyone else.

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