Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Why it's still the economy, stupid, not immigration

As Barack Obama sets out to work his magic in Dublin and Moneygall, word from the White House is that one theme he'll be stressing is the importance of 'diaspora communities'.

And, while an island that's historically lost huge numbers of its citizenry to emigration will welcome such words, Obama's remarks will also be aimed at US immigration reform advocates who accuse him of breaking his 2008 campaign pledge to prioritise the issue.

America has some 11 million illegal immigrants - at least 50,000 of them Irish. Upon assuming office in January 2009, Obama faced the worldwide economic meltdown, and immigration reform fell off the radar.

But, as the months slipped by and the economy stabilised somewhat, unhappy immigrants' rights groups began to grumble.

By March 2010, their anger was such that Obama felt compelled to address - via videolink - a 200,000-strong crowd that had gathered in Washington to demand action.

Obama vowed to do "everything in my power to forge a bi-partisan consensus this year on this important issue".

Eight months later, Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives and curtailed the Democrats' Senate majority.

Since then, immigration reform has withered on the vine. Even the Dream Act (offering a citizenship pathway to young adult illegals, provided they either enrolled in college or the military) died in Congress last December.

Now, with states like Arizona and Georgia passing a wave of tough new illegal-immigrant crackdown laws, Congress has taken immigration reform legislation off the back-burner and tossed it on to the backyard patio to cool further still.

Enter the 2012 election cycle. Last month, Obama formally announced his re-election campaign.

He knows well that he's infuriated many liberal and progressive Democrats, who accuse him of being to eager to comprise with obdurate Republicans on issues like healthcare and financial sector reform.

But Obama and his campaign strategists probably figure that, however annoyed liberals may be, they'll not likely vote Republican, or even stay at home, in 2012 if the Republican nominee has a serious shot at taking the White House.

Latinos are a different kettle of fish. Some 47 million-strong, they are America's largest minority group and comprise about 7% of its national electorate.

Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Latinos favour immigration reform that offers a pathway to citizenship. They also strongly oppose harsh deportation laws for the undocumented.

In an apparent effort to bolster his 'enforcement credibility' with Republicans in an effort to win their future co-operation on reform legislation, Obama's administration last year carried out a record 392,000 deportations. As part of his renewed courtship of immigration advocates, Obama recently delivered a speech in El Paso, Texas, where he stressed his enforcement record, but also accused Republicans of refusing to seriously engage in reform efforts.

Some Latino activists welcomed Obama's speech as sign that he's finally ready to lead the reform charge.

Immigration expert Kevin Johnson, the dean of the University of California at Davis's law school, said that, having tracked Obama's immigration statements for years, he thinks the president "feels strongly about the need to treat immigrants fairly and equitably".

However, added Johnson: "My gut tells me that, until we see a full recovery from the recession, we're not going to see much in terms of immigration reform."

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