What to Expect In Obama’s 2nd Term – Small Steps at Immigration Reform

President Obama at his Chicago victory rally. (Photo: Flickr/wchinews)

President Obama won another four years in the White House despite the economic head winds, thanks to tenacious campaign staff members, tireless volunteers, long-viewed voters, and a solid coalition of immigrants, communities of color, women, LGBTs, young people, and working class whites.

These various constituencies will no doubt hold the president accountable but they will also work closely with him at achieving the changes that remain to be accomplished.

Comprehensive immigration reform is a promise made twice over that will have to be kept if the Democrats want to keep the Latino vote in 2016. The Obama administration will also have to address the situation of 11 million unauthorized immigrants beyond indiscriminate deportation, prosecutorial discretion, and deferred action.

Republicans can no longer be obstructionists or pawns of fringe elements in their party. They need to learn that whileLatinos and other immigrants share the same bread and butter concerns of most Americans, they also care about friends and family who have been demonized by GOP candidates and talking heads. The Republican Party has to find a way other than tokenism to make communities of color believe that they have a place in the starkly White tent.

But can and will comprehensive immigration reform be achieved? While I believe in the president’s and Democratic party’s commitment to immigrants, the realities of our country’s fiscal and economic problems, foreign policy quagmire, and ossified partisanship make me think that major reform is a pipe dream.

What will pass during the next Obama term are smaller legislation that deal with the demand for high-skilled workers and agricultural labor. The DREAM Act also has a strong chance of finally passing both houses of Congress. These are bites our elected officials can take and the general public can stomach.

It is painfully apparent that our immigration system needs to be fixed and that the immigrant vote can no longer be ignored. Will Republicans loosen the grip of fringe elements in their party and collaborate with Democrats and the president?

Immigrant communities and their allies are watching with 2016 in mind.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, November 7, 2012.

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Immigration Not Debated But Still Important

Will immigration finally be debated? (Photo: Flickr/anksampedro)

The debate last week between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, like the first presidential debate, did not tackle immigration. A few folks, seeing the digits on their computer clocks near the 90 minute mark, tweeted out loud, “Will immigration, LGBTs, and women be mentioned at all?” Martha Raddatz, the moderator, did ask about abortion at the end, but clearly immigration was not a top domestic issue for her. I suspect it isn’t for the debaters either.

Interestingly, two reports reveal that immigration is not a top issue for immigrant communities either.

The Pew Hispanic Center released a report Thursday that rates education, jobs and the economy, and health care as the top three issues for registered Latino voters. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said the issue of education is extremely important to them, followed by 54 percent who cited jobs and the economy, and 50 percent who cited health care.

Earlier this month, initial findings from the 2012 National Asian American Survey was rolled out showing that the economy is also the most important issue for Asian Americans, followed by unemployment, health care, and education. Fifty-two percent of survey-takers said the economy was the most important problem facing the country today. Close to 20 percent pointed to unemployment, five percent cited health care, and four percent cited education.

Nonetheless, politicians and political parties should not take these numbers as an indication that immigration is not important to communities of color. After all, the majority of foreign-born individuals living in the U.S. – 40 million or 12.9 percent of our population – are from Latin America and Asia. About 1 in 4 children belong to families with at least one immigrant parent.

The Pew Hispanic Center study found that immigration is extremely important personally to a third of Latino registered voters.

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA), a coalition of 31 grassroots Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) organizations, recently released its policy platform which stresses the importance of immigration to Asian communities.

We are talking about family members, friends, and neighbors after all, loved ones who would benefit from a reformed immigration system. The party that shows genuine concern for immigrants and their families by pushing for rational reform will reap support and votes beyond this election cycle.

Pew’s findings confirm what we all know: the Democratic Party has a lock on Latinos. It appears that in the past year alone, there was a sharp rise in the share of Latinos who identify the Democratic Party as the one that has more concern for Latinos. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed say this, up from 45 percent in 2011. This is no surprise considering the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed during the Republican presidential primaries.

As for Asians, there is still the need to stress that they are a voting bloc that cannot be ignored. Although AAPIs overall do tend to lean Democratic, the 2012 National Asian American Survey shows that the party does not enjoy the loyalty of most and certainly not all Asians. There is enough room for the GOP to come in and win more Asians to their side.

Immigration may be ignored during the remaining debates and will most likely be invisible in the flurry of last minute campaign messages, but it is an issue that will not go away.

Originally posted in Feet in 2 Worlds and the Huffington Post, October 15, 2012.

Romney Presents Best Candidate for Latinos: Obama

Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch machine. (Illustration by DonkeyHotey)

There were no surprises from Mitt Romney during his speech at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ (NALEO) annual conference in Florida last Thursday.

Romney hammered the president on the economy and high unemployment rate among Latinos. In character, he skirted the question on everybody’s mind: whether or not he would repeal President Obama’s immigration reprieve for undocumented youth if elected.

“I will put in place my own long-term solution that will replace and supersede the president’s temporary measure,” Romney offered, fantasizing that he would somehow get both parties to work together at passing immigration reform.  He did hint at a possible solution for undocumented youth. The GOP candidate promised that as President, he “will stand for a path to legal status for anyone who is willing to stand up and defend this great nation through military service.”

Senior Romney adviser Ed Gillespie gave a more straightforward and honest answer about Obama’s immigration order during CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

“Every executive action that President Obama has taken will be subject to review,” Gillespie said. “In the case of this case, it will be subject to review as to whether or not it’s legal. So there’s legitimate questions about the legality of it.”

The Bain Capital founder came to Florida knowing full well that he had to do an etch-a-sketch on immigration and make amends with an audience he and other GOP presidential hopefuls had wantonly abused during the Republican primaries with strident anti-immigrant rhetoric. Self-deportation was Mitt Romney’s unpopular answer then.

“I’ve come here today with a simple message: you do have an alternative,” Romney said. “Your vote should be respected and your voice is more important now than ever before.”

No doubt the Latino voice will be more crucial than ever come November. But Romney and the Republican Party have not exactly been respectful. Latinos and other immigrant communities do have an alternative—an alternative to Romney.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, June 26, 2012.

President Romney’s ‘Día Uno’ Campaign Won’t Earn Him Latino Votes

Republican contender Mitt Romney

Republican contender Mitt Romney. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr)

Mitt Romney sealed the deal in Texas on Tuesday and is now the official Republican presidential candidate. The former Massachusetts governor has been actively reaching out to Latino voters who he managed to alienate during the primaries.

At the Latino Coalition’s annual economic summit in Washington, D.C., last week, Romney explained how he would improve schools andcalled education “the greatest civil rights issue of our era and our greatest challenge.”

The weekend prior, his team released its Spanish-language ad campaign entitled “Día Uno,” which focuses on what Romney would tackle his first day as President – the economy.  The ads are running in Iowa, North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio.

The odd but unsurprising thing about both of these efforts is that Gov. Romney does not mention immigration whatsoever. He brazenly skirts the issue.

No doubt Latinos care about their children’s education and having jobs that provide for their families. But precisely because family and community are also very important to Latinos, immigration is an issue Romney cannot sweep under the rug.

The core of his immigration policy, attrition through enforcement, has prompted families to remove their children from school and parents to leave jobs out of fear. Moreover, his plan to reform immigration includes tighter enforcement and border control and eschews any path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants. Romney’s hardline immigration stance greatly impacts Latino voters, many of whom have undocumented family members and friends.

“Make no mistake, when I am President, you won’t wake up every day and wonder if the President is on your side,” he proclaimed at the Latino Coalition meeting. Mitt Romney is right. Latino and other voters with ties to immigrant communities know that should he win the presidency, he will not be on their side from day one. He has made that rather obvious.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, June 1, 2012.

Obama’s Gay Marriage Stance Won’t Cost Him the Latino Vote

Gay Latinos in Queens celebrate the passage of marriage equality in New York State

Gay Latinos in Queens celebrate the passage of marriage equality in New York State. (Photo: JoeinQueens/flickr)

President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage last week has everyone theorizing on whether it will hurt or help his re-election bid. Some argue that this move will cost the president support from Latinos, a rapidly growing population whose votes may decide the race in battleground states.

Bob Quasius, Sr., president of Café Con Leche Republicans, a group that does not take a position on gay marriage, claims the president’s comments will distance him from Latinos, who are now over 16 percent of the U.S. population.

“Sixty percent of Latinos are center-right according to Pew Hispanic,” Quasius said, “and more conservative Latinos, especially evangelical Christians, are strongly opposed to gay marriage. A majority of Latinos voted against gay marriage in California. Among Latinos who support gay marriage, many will view Obama’s recent comments as election time rhetoric,” Quasius said.

But despite a reputation of Latino social conservatism that the GOP likes to tout, in 2008, 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) doubts the President’s comments will be a deal breaker.

“Most Latinos favor broader civil rights protections and inclusion in U.S. society and the issue of same-sex marriage is no exception.  A majority of Latino voters favor legalizing same-sex marriage, as a recent NCLR study showed,” Rep. Gutierrez  said.

Clarissa Martinez, Director of Civic Engagement at NCLR, the country’s largest Latino civil rights advocacy group, believes Mr. Obama’s historic stance will actually increase his appeal among Latinos.

“The President’s endorsement of same-sex marriage is historic and will resonate with the 54 percent of Latinos who support marriage equality (according to a recent report by Social Science Research Solutions, co-released with NCLR),” Martinez emailed.  “And while marriage equality has not been a top voting issue or determining factor for Latinos overall, this endorsement may be one factor voters in favor take into account.”

Pedro Julio Serrano, Communications Manager of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force attributes this to the Latino community’s strong sense of family.

“We know what ‘familia‘ is,” he said, “and when we see same-sex couples in loving and committed relationships, when we see that more that 40 percent are raising children, we want them to have the same rights and protections as the opposite-sex couples have. In any case, if it has an effect, it will be a positive one,” Serrano said.

The stereotype of Latinos as conservatives appears increasingly outdated. Indeed, the president’s marriage equality stance seems to have energized immigration activists, especially young Latino voters who have built an alliance with gay activists on pushing for immigration reform. Juan Rodriguez, who is active in the Florida Immigrant Coalition, told the Associated Press that the gay rights and immigrant rights movements are “very aligned and becoming more so every year.”

Analysts of the Latino vote also say that at the end of the day, the president’s stance on marriage equality will be overshadowed by his reputation on creating jobs and immigration reform.

“Latino voters will be looking for specific plans that address the employment needs of the hardest hit communities, create jobs, and get the economy back on track,” said Martinez, from the NCLR. “Immigration has also risen on the issue priority agenda, particularly fueled by the anti-Latino sentiment with which the immigration debate has been laced, and the impact on the civil rights of the community,” said Martinez.

“For a large segment of the Latino community, immigration issues will probably have a bigger impact on the election than Obama’s support for marriage equality,” said Andrés Duque, a Latino LGBT rights activist and blogger.  ”Fairly or unfairly, there is a lot of discontent out there about the Obama administration’s handling of the issue, particularly with the DREAM Act, and what keeps saving him is that the Romney campaign has struggled to frame the issue and aligned himself with some of the most anti-immigrant voices in his party,” Duque added.

So while bread and butter issues might be an opening for the Romney campaign to bait Latino vote, the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed during the GOP presidential primaries and the presumptive candidate’s own hardline immigration stance might have totally slammed the opening shut.

Rep. Gutierrez stresses the fact that Romney has catered to the “loudest and least tolerant elements of the Republican base,” which he says puts the GOP presidential hopeful and Republicans “out of step with America.”

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, WNYC It’s A Free Country, and the Huffington Post.

‘Estamos Unidos’ President Obama Woos En Español

Estamos Unidos

A message to Latinos from President Obama.

La familia es bien importante a Presidente Obama,” Lynnette Acosta tells the family she is visiting.

That is why the president fought hard for the overhaul of the health care system – because he cares for usted.

Acosta is speaking to this family at their dining room table, but her voice will be heard by thousands of Latino voters in Florida, Nevada and Colorado.  She is a volunteer spokesperson in a new series of Spanish-language television ads the Obama re-election campaign launched Tuesday.   Obama and Romney are expected to have a tight contest in these battleground states which have large Latino populations.

The commercials are part of a nine-state, $25 million advertising blitz from the Obama camp. Transitioning from the “Si Se Puede,” slogan of 2008, “Estamos Unidos” is the 2012 tagline. The campaign told CNN that the spots feature “first person accounts from Obama for America organizers and supporters sharing their personal stories of how the President’s policies have empowered Latino families and communities.” They promote the Affordable Health Care Act which the White House touts as ”giving Latinos greater control of their own health care” through a quality and affordable system.

The Republican National Committee also tried to launch its own outreach to the Latino community Tuesday. The RNC’s newly minted Director of Hispanic Outreach, Bettina Inclan, held a press briefing to promote the party’s efforts to woo Latino voters. She meant to highlight Obama’s deportations record and pivot the spotlight away from Mitt Romney’s hardline immigration stance and focus it on the economic hardships disproportionately suffered by Latino families.

Unfortunately, the briefing didn’t go too well. Reporters were more interested in talking about Romney’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric during the Republican presidential primaries and the expected loss of Latino voters this November.  Inclan declared, “As a candidate, to my understanding, he is still deciding what his position on immigration is.”

Inclan’s comment went viral and RNC press secretary Kirsten Kukowski jumped in to clarify that “we never said the governor is still deciding on immigration.” Indeed, Romney’s website is pretty clear that his hardline stance has not softened one bit and his team has not shaken the immigration Etch-A-Sketch. Not yet anyway.

Convincing Latino voters that Romney has their best interests in mind will be a Sisyphean task. His harsh words, seared in the minds of Latinos and other immigrant communities, cannot be retracted, much less erased from our collective minds and digital repositories.

It will not be as much of a challenge for the president. Recent polls show Obama leading Romney among Latino voters by as much as 68 percent. Yet this does not necessarily mean that Latinos will come out and vote in November.

President Obama will have to alleviate the sting of unparalleled deportation numbers and the unfulfilled promises of comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act. Broadcasting Lynnette Acosta to remind Latinos of how health care reform benefits them is one way. Pointing out that GOP lawmakers stonewalled the DREAM Act and that most Republican politicians, including Mitt Romney, have fanned immigrant animus is another.

I believe that Latinos and other minority communities know that all families are very important to the president, not just the rich and native-born. The trick is to turn them out on November 6 and vote.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, May 11, 2012.

Georgia, Latinos, and the Latino Vote

Posted on Huffington Post, April 3, 2012.  A shorter version was posted on Feet in 2 Worlds.

Georgia lawmakers are at it again, less than a year after passing their own version of Arizona’s hardcore immigration law. They tried to pass a statute that would have made life all the more difficult for many immigrants. SB 458 would have rendered foreign passports unacceptable as identification when conducting business with government agencies. Obtaining marriage licenses or signing up for water and sewage service for instance could have become insurmountable challenges.

Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, has been at the forefront of the battle for immigrants’ rightful place in Georgia. He discussed the state’s attrition-through-enforcement initiatives.

Proponents of immigration measures have argued that unauthorized immigrants have strained state resources and are criminals who ought to be held to account. Gonzalez thinks that race is an impetus.

“The Deep South has not dealt with the issue of race in a good way and this is a way that issue could come to the forefront without being racial,” he argued. “I think it provides a venue for people with some of the old prejudices to use it as a vehicle for furthering prejudice.”

Gonzalez is hoping though that the devastating effects and backlash against Georgia’s immigration law has turned the tide on anti-immigrant fervor. He witnessed a slight shift with SB 458.

“I think the appetite for this type of anti-immigrant stuff has waned,” he said

The bill originally had a provision which would have denied undocumented youth access to state colleges and universities. A couple of days before the House were to vote on the measure however,the provision was stricken out.

Gonzalez said that prohibiting access to higher education had become “an unpalatable position for many Republican legislators,” who control both Georgia’s General Assembly and Senate. “If they wanted something to pass they could make it pass early on, even as a standalone bill.”

He believes that the personal experience and connection of key Republicans contributed to the demise of the measure.

Rep. Carl Rogers, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, tabled a similar House measure early in the legislative session. Rogers is from Gainesville which has a large Latino population.

“Gainesville would not be around had it not been for the Latino community,” Gonzalez said. He suspects that Rogers knew of many young students who would have been adversely affected by the bill. “You can’t be from Gainesville and claim ignorance about people who are undocumented.”

Sen. Tommie Williams also briefly proposed and withdrew an amendment that would have created Georgia’s version of the DREAM Act. Gonzalez said that it is likely that Williams’ daughter would have friends who are without papers.

“The senator saw the real implication of denying access to those kids that his daughter plays with right now so that is what I think moved the senator,” Gonzalez said, “it showed some sentiment and concern in that regard.”

Gonzalez acknowledges the work of the broad coalition which has coalesced against anti-immigrant initiatives – Latino advocates, educators, African American leaders, faith-based groups, the Asian community, the LGBT community, and others.

“Injustice whether a person’s gay, whether a person’s an immigrant, whether a person’s African American, I think there’s been greater solidarity built across different groups,” he said.

There remains much more work to be done, especially during the upcoming elections. Latinos and other immigrant communities need to vote and vote into office those who have their best interest in mind.

“Clearly we know President Obama has his failures as a president with regards to immigration reform and being known as the deportation president,” he said. “Clearly we know the views of the leading presidential nominees in the Republican side. So I think Latinos are going to be having to make some very hard choices.”

Gonzalez believes at the end of the day, it will be about how the Latino community has been treated.

“When kids are being called beaners in school, when kids are being bullied because they have Spanish accents, it touches the Latino community in very deep personal ways,” he said, “immigration is an issue of respect and that’s how Latinos in Georgia will vote.”

SB 458 did not pass Georgia’s current legislative session which ended last Thursday, but it could be resuscitated later.

Gonzalez is unfazed. “We’ve defeated English-only for drivers’ licenses three to four times already.” He also thinks reason prevailed.

“Only 2 percent of GOP voters thought immigration was a major issue during the most recent GOP presidential primary. It was not something they needed to do.”

In the meantime, Latinos and other immigrant communities nationwide weigh their options for November. I believe they will go to the polls remembering how promises have been broken and threats made, how they have been marginalized, and how they have been used as pawns.

Georgia, Latinos, and the Latino Vote

A Latino child in Georgia

The Latino population is growing in Georgia. (Photo: Philip Wartena/flickr)

Georgia lawmakers were at it again, less than a year after passing their own version of Arizona’s hardcore immigration law.  SB 458 would have rendered foreign passports unacceptable as identification when conducting business with government agencies. Obtaining marriage licenses or signing up for water and sewage service could have become insurmountable challenges.

The Georgia Assembly was expected to vote on SB 458 at the end of the legislative session last Thursday but it did not even make it to the floor.

Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, believes this was because “reason weighed in.” He said that only two percent of GOP primary voters in Georgia said unauthorized immigration was the issue that mattered most in deciding how they voted. He also thinks that the appetite for draconian immigration laws is diminishing.

Gonzalez has been at the forefront of the battle for immigrant rights in Georgia, and he is optimistic. He believes that the devastating effects and backlash against Georgia’s immigration law has turned the tide on anti-immigrant fervor. He says that opposition to SB 458 represents a shift in state politics.

“I think the appetite for this type of anti-immigrant stuff has waned,” he said. He is also confident that a coalition of immigrant advocates in the state will fight SB 458 and similar measures tooth and nail should they resurface.

“We’ve defeated English-only for drivers’ licenses three to four times already,” he said.

SB 458 originally had a provision that denied undocumented immigrant youth access to state colleges and universities. A couple of days before the House was to vote on the measure, the provision was stricken out.

Gonzalez said that prohibiting access to higher education had become “an unpalatable position for many Republican legislators,” who control both Georgia’s General Assembly and Senate. He believes that shifting demographics and the personal experience of key Republicans in the state legislature contributed to the demise of the provision.

Rep. Carl Rogers (R-Gainsville), chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, tabled a similar House measure early in the legislative session. Rogers’ district has a large Latino population.

“Gainesville would not be around had it not been for the Latino community,” Gonzalez said. He suspects that Rogers knew of many young students who would have been adversely affected by the bill. “You can’t be from Gainesville and claim ignorance about people who are undocumented.”

One Republican State Senator, Sen. Tommie Williams, even proposed an amendment that would have created Georgia’s version of the DREAM Act. (He later withdrew the amendment before it was formally entered into record.) Gonzalez said that it is likely that Williams’ daughter would have friends who are without papers.

“The senator saw the real implication of denying access to those kids that his daughter plays with right now so that is what I think moved the senator,” was Gonzalez’s analysis.

Gonzalez says a broad coalition has coalesced against anti-immigrant initiatives – Latino advocates, educators, African American leaders, faith-based groups, the Asian community, the LGBT community, and others, and credits them for lobbying efforts against SB 458.

“I think there’s been greater solidarity built across different groups,” he said.

Gonzalez acknowledges there remains much more work to be done, especially during the upcoming elections. He stresses that Latinos and other immigrant communities need to vote into office those who have their best interest in mind.

When Latinos and other immigrant communities in Georgia weigh their options in November, I believe they will go to the polls remembering the broken promises, the marginalization, the threats, and which, if any, officials have supported their rights.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, April 2, 2012.

Justice Department Protects Latino Citizens’ Right to Vote

vote voting

(Photo: Tom Giebel/flickr)

The Justice Department blocked Texas’ new voter ID law on Monday, out of concern that it violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The federal agency believes the law would disproportionately impact Latino voters, who often lack photo ID, and thereby suppress their turnout.

Texas, because of its history of voter discrimination, needs to clear its voting laws with the Justice Department.

Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, argued in a letter to Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram that the state had failed to prove the measure would not disproportionately disenfranchise Latino and other voters of color.

“According to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification,” Perez wrote.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund issued a statement praising the Department of Justice’s action.

“We applaud the Department of Justice for halting the implementation of a discriminatory voter identification law that would institute burdensome requirements on Latino voters and create significant obstacles for their political participation in Texas’ electoral process,” it read.

About 2.8 million registered voters in Texas are Hispanic. Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), also commended the Justice Department. He told the New York Times that the state law “would have blocked hundreds of thousands of Hispanic voters from the polls just because they lack a state-issued photo ID.”

Gov. Rick Perry defended the law. “The DOJ has no valid reason for rejecting this important law, which requires nothing more extensive than the type of photo identification necessary to receive a library card or board an airplane. Their denial is yet another example of the Obama Administration‘s continuing and pervasive federal overreach,” he said.

Texas officials anticipated the Justice Department’s decision and have already filed suit with a panel of federal judges, hoping that the new voter ID law can be enforced in November.

According to the National Conference of Legislatures, 31 states have laws in place that require voters to show ID at the polls. Fifteen of those states mandate that the ID must include a photo of the voter.

“The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights afforded to citizens by the U.S. Constitution,” NALEO reminded readers.

There is nothing wrong with requiring identification from voters. But demanding the kind of IDs which minority U.S. citizens tend to lack, while not providing easy access to these forms of identification, brazenly thwarts their constitutional right to vote. It bears pointing out that the stringent voter ID laws are overwhelmingly promulgated by Republican-controlled state legislatures whose members know voters of color tend to vote Democratic.

Gov. Perry accused the Justice Department of overreaching. It was not. In blocking Texas’ voter ID law, it was only doing its job.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, March 15, 2012.

Irish Immigration Bill Raises Questions in Latino, Asian Communities

Irish Flag (Agnieszka Bernacka)

Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) recently announced that an immigration bill he filed last year was “about to pop.”

The measure, dubbed the Irish immigration bill, would qualify Ireland for the E-3 visa program which currently applies exclusively to Australian nationals. The bill would increase the number of work visas allocated to the Irish by 10,500 per year.

Brown’s measure has been added to a broader bill introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) that would make it easier for high-skilled foreign workers to obtain work visas in the U.S. Schumer’s bill is a version of the Fairness for Highly Skilled Immigrants Act of 2011 (H.R. 3012) – which passed the House with broad bipartisan support in November.

Brown argued that this is a “no brainer” in his state where there is a strong demand for such a visa program because of “family and cultural ties.”

The senator, who is facing a tough re-election bid this November and stands to gain from the support of Massachusetts’ large Irish population, lobbied the powerful ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), to allow the piece of legislation to move forward and provide a legal pathway for Irish to come to the U.S.

“Supporters argue that the strong cultural ties between the US and Ireland should be recognized in immigration policy,” wrote Noah Bierman in the Boston Globe,  “especially as the Irish economy falters and thousands of skilled workers are clamoring for opportunity across the Atlantic.”

But why should the Irish get a special bill? Filipinos and Chinese have been in the United States since the 1700s, and the Philippines has had a “special bond” with the U.S. which continues to the present. The borders, citizens, economies, and politics of Mexico and the U.S. have been and will always be inextricably linked. Thousands of professionals from the Philippines, China, Mexico, and other nations also clamor for America’s promise of opportunity.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Immigration Task Force Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, does not believe any one nationality should be favored.

“I would not support Senator Brown’s standalone bill to add Ireland to the E-3 visa program,” he said.

The author of the Reuniting Families Act (H.R. 1796), Honda would rather see comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the family-sponsored and employment-based visa backlogs in many nations, rather than just one.

Michael Innis-Jiménez, a University of Alabama professor and expert on Latino and Labor issues said focusing on just one ethnic group won’t fill the high and low-skilled gaps in the American workforce.

“Although I admire Scott’s advocacy for an extremely vibrant and influential ethnic and national group within his constituency of Massachusetts, the underlying problem is that the immigration system needs a complete overhaul,” Innis- Jiménez said.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for lower levels of immigration tossed race into the mix, arguing that measures like Brown’s favor white immigrants.

“They’re basically upset because they don’t have the special privileges that they once had,” Beck told the Boston Globe, referring to Irish advocates. “They have to share those privileges with Latinos and Africans and Asians.”

Innis-Jiménez, who is of Irish and Mexican descent, admitted that he thinks race is a factor.

“Sure, I think race is always in play with national-level U.S. immigration policy,” he said. “But I think it is a bit more complicated.  It is also about economic class and political clout.  Few Americans are going to complain about more white, educated Irish immigrants. Most of them will end up in the Northeast.”

Tamar Jacoby, President and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national organization that links 25 state-based business coalitions and advocates for immigration reform, is just glad that steps, albeit small ones, are being taken to address the fraught and complex issue.

“After five years of people in Congress, and especially Republicans, not willing to touch immigration at all, I’m very encouraged – and this isn’t the only bill – to see some Republicans taking small bites of the apple,” she said.

There’s no hard evidence that Brown prefers one color of immigrants over another. Jacoby argues that the impetus behind Brown’s measure is purely political. “It’s not because Scott Brown’s a racist,” she said. “It’s because he has Irish people in his state and he needs to get re-elected.”

But Brown’s tough stance against unauthorized immigration and opposition to the DREAM Act which mainly impacts Latinos, raises suspicion and protest from other ethnic groups that are as much part of America’s history and future as the Irish.

Moreover, America’s sordid history of excluding, and at times oppressing, non-European immigrants has left a bad taste in the mouths of ethnic minorities.

Despite appearances, the U.S. remains the land of opportunity and promise. Millions worldwide want the chance to come and toil for their American dream. We should have clear-eyed, reasoned, and fair policy that picks foreign workers based on what our economy demands not on country of origin. Most certainly not on the color of skin.

At any rate, this entire discussion may be moot. Politico reports that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is opposing Brown’s pet bill out of concern that it could “hurt high-skilled American jobs.”  And this is an election year. No one will seriously attempt, much less pass, anything before November.

Originally posted on WNYC It’s A Free Country, February 23, 2012. Also posted on Feet in 2 Worlds and the Huffington Post.