The Obama Record on Immigration

The second inauguration of President Obama today is an event that will be long remembered.  But if our President really desires a meaningful historical legacy in the area of human rights, he will provide capable leadership on realistic immigration reform.

To date Obama’s record, in spite of his rhetorical claims, is abysmal.  Remember before the events of 9/11 that President Bush was about to push through Congress new legislation that, among other things, would have provided for a labor management program for Mexican workers in the United States as well as other concrete reforms to the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986.

After 9/11 President Bush and both political parties made a deal to leave immigration reform untouched even though by 2006 the problems that states faced, especially border states, had grown severe.  During the summer of 2006 our political leadership turned immigration reform into an “international security” problem: until such time as our southern border with Mexico was magically declared “operationally secure”, any kind of immigration reform at the federal level was off the table.

That left states like Arizona between a rock and a hard place.  Let to their own, the Republican dominated Arizona legislature began churning out laws that were designed to make the lives of illegal immigrants living in Arizona as painful as possible.  At the same time Sheriff Arpaio was given free rein on the streets of Phoenix.  The Arizona immigration laws began to spread to other border and non-border states until finally the Supreme Court was forced to rule on their constitutionality; in general their decision was a reminder to the states that immigration law was responsibility of the federal government.

Of course all these missteps could have been avoided if during his first term President Obama had begun a thoughtful and fair process of immigration reform which seriously considered problems faced both by the states, including lack of funding, while simultaneously considering such issues as the needs of the children of illegal immigrants locked out of public educational institutions.

After their losses last November some Republicans are now willing to begin the process of negotiations of immigration laws to appear more open to their Latino constituency.  President Obama must provide the leadership and the political will to bring other Republicans and conservative Democrats to the table by offering concessions where necessary.

With the exception of President Obama’s executive order that is a precursor to the Dream Act, immigration reform since 1986 has remained a dream.  It is now time for President Obama to act and in so doing to begin the process of bringing these 11 million immigrants into our society while, at the same time, maintaining and supporting the rights of all American citizens.

On this inauguration day it is legitimate to question whether President Obama can achieve meaningful immigration reform in the next four years.

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