The idea that President Obama is playing Latinos on the immigration amnesty issue has now become near CW. Columnist Ruben Navarrette says Obama “spent the first 28 months of his presidency trying to avoid” immigration reform. “Don’t look now, Latinos. But you’ve been stung.”
It’s a good thing if Latino commentators and voters now feel Obama played them, because it’s true. I don’t think Obama ever had any intention of making immigration reform “a top priority in my first year as President,” unless “top” means “second tier.” In fact, as Jon Alter’s The Promise reports (page 79), immigration was backburnered almost immediately as a “distraction” from the health reform and stimulus push.
But the “we were played” meme has also become an excuse that absolves Latino immigration activists of any culpability, avoiding the annoying need for introspection or self-criticism. To read Navarrette’s piece you’d think Latino pols and lobbyists were at worst innocent rubes (at best noble civil rights leaders) waiting for Obama to deliver long-sought justice–when they were cruelly and cynically betrayed.**
The only things wrong with this exculpatory portrait are:
1) Doh! They forgot to convince the voters; Immigration amnesty never enough support to pass. It failed in 2007 when a Repulican President pushed it and it would have failed in 2009 even if Wall Street and Detroit hadn’t collapsed (as even-the-liberal-Ezra-Klein now admits). Obama would have been insane not to backburner it. Expecting Obama to deliver the undeliverable is like expecting him to slow the rise of the oceans suspend the law of gravity. If you have that delusional expectation–well, whose fault is that?
2) The Latino lobby and pro-amnesty lobby grossly overreached: A big reason Latino pols might have expected Congress to deliver amnesty is that they assumed it was a simple matter of ethnic politics. Hispanics are a big, rapidly growing group of voters. Dems would have to deliver amnesty, if that’s what these voters wanted (in the process creating an even bigger group of Latino voters). So instead of starting small–with confidence-building enforcement measures against employers, for example, or a border fence, or a limited version of the of appealing DREAM Act–activists decided to go for the whole chile relleno: a “path to citizenship” for virtually all 11 million or so current illegal immigrants. Did many voters bristle at this huge amnesty? Poll-tested euphemisms–e.g. “comprehensive reform”–plus ethnic pressure would solve that. President Bush and the MSM agreed! When had they ever miscalculated? It was a case of activists in an echo chamber convincing themselves that American politics wouldn’t see until Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan.
3) The Dream Must Die: In 1986 we had an amnesty, followed by a huge wave of illegal immigration. Now we’re talking about giving amnesty to the people in that second wave. Could you blame Latino pols for dreaming that today’s amnesty would be followed by another wave, and another? And could you blame everyone else for doubting whether Latino pols are actually serious about enforcement measures–part of the “comprehensive” reform–that would prevent those future waves (and in the process deny ethnic Latino pols their expanded base)? Trying to pass amnesty in an ethnic pressure power play only magnifies reasonable fears that the same pols and voters who see current illegals through an ethnic lens will see future illegals through the same ethnic lens. If Rep. Luis Gutierrez really wants an amnesty, he should travel around the country, not railing against deportations but telling his audiences they need to come to grips with what may be unpleasant news: that if they are going to be the latest generation of illegals legalized they will have to be the last generation of illegals legalized. The game will have to stop–even if some illegals will have to be deported. And if that message requires a lowering of Latino expectations about the future …well, that’s the point.
If Obama wasn’t just playing Latinos for votes, those are the first things he would be saying. …
**Does it matter here that Obama is black? One of the you-can’t-talk-about-its in American politics is Latino/ black resentment. Are Latino pols about to play on that? It’s at least as good a question as the mainstream Dem argument that most opposition to immigration amnesty flows from anti-Latino animus.