Belfast Telegraph

Obama’s reign rides on Republicans and immigration

By Jim Dee

So the 2010 US mid-terms are history and the countdown has begun towards the 2012 presidential sweepstakes that will determine whether Barack Obama is a one-term wonder or the truly transformational president he yearns to be.

With all the ‘our way or the highway’ rhetoric spouted by swaggering Republicans since last Tuesday’s uber-surge, Obama's chances of scoring any big domestic policy wins in the next two years seem slim indeed.

But there’s one issue that, if played correctly, might give him a boost in two years’ time — comprehensive immigration reform.

Over the last year, Obama took serious heat from immigrants’ rights groups — particularly Latinos — for failing to fulfil his 2008 campaign vow to make the issue a top priority upon taking office. Out of spite, Latinos could have dealt him and the Democrats an even more devastating blow last week by throwing their lot in with the Republicans.

Instead, nationally, Latinos voted for Democrats over Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in races for the House of Representatives as in the pivotal tight races of Nevada and Colarado. Still, displays of Hispanic voting muscle are no guarantee that immigrant-friendly reforms will be clearing Congress any time soon.

According to groups which closely track the pulse of immigration reform on Capitol Hill, of the 52 Democrat incumbents who lost their House seats last Tuesday, 14 were advocates of progressive reform. Many Republican replacements will probably take a harder security approach to the issue.

Not all Latinos favour immigrant-friendly reforms. Six Latino Republicans elected to Congress last week ran on anti-immigrant platforms.

Ciaran Staunton, the New York-based president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, believes that, while a comprehensive immigration overhaul isn’t imminent, neither is it dead — particularly since Obama will need all the help he can get in 2012.

“I don’t think he can leave it on the cutting-room floor and go back out in two years’ time and say, ‘I need the Hispanic community to rally for me because I need to get re-elected’,” Staunton told the Belfast Telegraph.

Staunton also believes Republicans who exploited nativist sentiment for political gain in the mid-term elections will be far more pragmatic and try to mollify immigrants’ rights groups once in office. “No matter what kind of rhetoric a lot of them went on with in advance of the election, most politicians have long enough memories to remember the immigrant community was never able to mobilise in favour of immigration legislation reform as they were in opposition to bad immigration laws,” said Staunton.

A potential bellwether of the issue of immigration is Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who last March joined with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, proposing reforms to prevent illegal workers from getting jobs, increased border security, a process for admitting temporary workers and a pathway for illegal immigrants living in the US to earn permanent residency. Shortly after making the pitch in the Washington Post, Graham abruptly abandoned |the initiative, ostensibly to protest the Democrats’ passage of |healthcare reform without any Republican support.

At the time, it was one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets that Graham ditched immigration to help close friend, Senator John McCain, who was then facing |uncertain re-election odds in |immigrant-hostile Arizona.

Now that McCain has survived, Graham may decide to rejoin Schumer in trying to pass something to give the 13 million illegal immigrants in the US — including 50,000 Irish — a ray of hope.

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