As President Obama places his hand on Lincoln’s Bible to be sworn as the 44th President of The United States, history is clearly being made: it is the first African-American to occupy the office. In fact there has been no Jew, Italian, Frenchman, Southern or Eastern European descendant or Latino elected President of the U.S. The victory scored by Barack Obama was a solid and overwhelming majority in the Electoral College and a clear majority of the popular vote. The Latino/Hispanic vote is considered to have been critical in such states as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and possibly Florida. As Obama takes up residence in the White House and becomes the most powerful leader in the world, the Latino community is beaming with pride over its role in getting Obama to prevail in last November’s electoral contest. Only four years ago, former State Senator Obama had just left the Illinois State legislature to take up his U.S. Senate seat. His political rise on the American political stage is plainly remarkable. The Latino constituency participated in a visible and vigorous way in his election. Now the time has arrived to reflect on the different agendas to be addressed and executed in the out months and years.
For Latinos, Comprehensive Immigration Reform has been bandied around as the primordial theme in the Latino agenda as noted in the Latino State of the Union yesterday, which is expected to be positively addressed by President Obama. The fact remains that during the rugged campaign, immigration was patently avoided by both candidates. Hence, there is no electoral mandate to obtain comprehensive immigration reform legislation. However, among some Latino advocacy circles like the National Council of La Raza, the LULAC and MALDEF, immigration reform is being pronounced as a top priority and signaling the Obama team that they must resolve or seek legislation to alleviate the undocumented peoples’ plight . It should be pointed out that the two other significant and somewhat empowered groups of Latinos: the Puerto Ricans and the Cuban-Americans do not have an immigration issue as such. Both groups view immigration not an immediate concern: the Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens and the Cubans are paroled into the U.S. once they touch dry land. Hence, both have no employment issue for their newly arrived migrants or exiles. Mexican nationals in the US, along with numerous Central Americans, are the most anxious to see some movement on the immigration reform front. Mexican-Americans also are sensitive to the issue, but no overwhelming consensus on immigration exists among these Mexican Americans. They, along with other Latinos, often fret over the immigration debate becoming an anti-immigrant and ultimately anti-Latino. The California Latinos saw this happen in 1994 with the propositions to limit or deny services to the undocumented. Thus, it can be readily concluded that the Latino community as a whole may hold different views and priorities in the Latino agenda.
Most voting Latinos appear to be more interested in Obama tackling the current economic crisis, as evidenced by the most recent Pew Hispanic Center survey. It is considered the most menacing crisis since the Great Depression. Jobs, housing, education and health services are all being affected significantly by the crisis. The immigration reform goal is also on the radar, but according to several surveys, it is not the primary issue that is viewed as indispensable for immediate consideration. There is in fact a reasonable national consensus among all sectors of American society that immigration reform must be addressed and resolved. No one who is rational in thinking about or discussing the issue can seek to ignore or obstruct reform, but it is most difficult to see it as a top national priority in the first year of the new Administration. Obama, who during the transition period after the election, has amply demonstrated his pragmatic and middle of the road approach to national problem solving will not commit the same error the Clintons did in attempting early on to pass health reform. Health care, like immigration, is indeed a fundamental goal for this administration. But both involve and require enormous political capital, which will have to be safe guarded to ensure that it is available for addressing the burgeoning budget, massive economic infrastructure programs, jobs creation, and bailing out the automotive and banking sectors. Immigration, as vividly demonstrated almost three years ago in the last round of attempts to get legislation passed, evoked a glandular reaction from the ‘racist nativists’ and an enormous discomfort in many other areas of the economy. Now with the dire economic conditions of the country it suggests that any reform effort to address effectively the almost 12 million undocumented residents in the U.S will provoke a boisterous, sectarian, anti-immigrant backlash in the country. Regularizing (granting permission to work and reside in the US) these hopeful would-be-immigrants will be tantamount to some perceptions of amnesty. Admittedly, to introduce or officially recognize several million new workers under the circumstances would be politically harrowing. This involves officially welcoming several million new workers into an economy which at best is ailing. Therefore, one would require extraordinary political bravery or recklessness if it means jeopardizing other priorities on the Obama agenda.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Latino Advocacy groups like LULAC, MALDEF and NCLR must quickly strategize and meet with the Congressional and administrative leadership to determine the timelines, evaluate the political costs, the horse-trading involved, and be certain that before launching an all out national political effort there is a preliminary nose-count to ascertain the viability of legislative approval of any reform proposal. The Obama Administration will correctly address the economic priority, simultaneously the burning foreign policy issues like extricating ourselves from Iraq and continuing the efforts in Afghanistan will require enormous blood, sweat, tears and toil. In sum, Obama and his team will be most circumspect on when and how to introduce the immigration reform proposals. It will behoove the Latino leadership to assess and gauge the immigration reform efforts. Other items in the Latino agenda like housing, education, health, job opportunity and basic human needs will be included in the overall treatment of the economy. Latin America, as a foreign policy issue and a Latino priority, does not appear to be evident. Opportunities for Latinos in federal employment (civilan or military) also are not readily perceived. It remains to be seen who among the Latinos in Congress who will bear the torch on these issues. Luis Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican legislator from Illinois, has been the standard bearer on immigration. Senator Bob Menendez (a Cuban-American Democrat) has invariably sought to ensure that the State Department recruits and promotes Latinos.
Will someone like Silvestre Reyes, Loretta Sanchez or Solomon Ortiz, all senior members of the House Armed Services Committee, seek to lead the efforts to have more Latino general officers selected and promoted? Does Nydia Velazquez, as Chairwoman of the Small Business Committee, become an all encompassing and forceful factor in driving or leading Latino efforts to guide Latino small businessmen to more attractive government help in grants and loans? Also will Nydia Velazquez, as head of the Hispanic Caucus, organize and strategize the Hispanic/Latino Agenda with other Congresspersons to ensure that the Administration does not forsake its Latino constituency? Perhaps more interesting does Congressman Jose Serrano from his perch as Chair of the Subcommittee on Financial Services of the Appropriations Committee lookout for the Latino agenda in terms of lending or mortgages? Does Loretta Sanchez, as second ranking majority member of the Homeland Security Committee, oversee and moderate the heavy-handed behavior of DHS/ICE’s persecution of illegal foreign workers in job-sites? Will Joe Baca, as chair of the Agriculture Committee’s Sub-committee on Oversight and Nutrition, use his position to advance the Latino agenda’s possible concern with adequate nutrition? Do Hinojosa, Grijalva and Linda Sanchez all members of the Committee on Education and Labor dwell on the pending Latino concerns on education and perhaps take the lead on the Dream Act? And will they regularly meet with new Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to advance Latino labor issues? Perhaps Representative Nydia Velazquez can set up periodic (monthly) meetings with both Labor Secretary Solis and Interior Secretary Salazar to review the bidding on the Latino Agenda and help identify up-and-coming young Latinos among the political and career ranks of the federal bureaucracy. Does the Congressional Hispanic Caucus schedule quarterly meetings with the Latin American diplomatic corps to learn about the region’s problems, needs and desires? Does the Caucus get an initial meeting with Secretary of State Clinton and DoD Secretary Bob Gates to raise issues of policy concern not just in Latin America? Personnel issues should be on the agenda in these meetings. Formulating talking points ahead of time by the appropriate staffers for these meetings would demonstrate seriousness of purpose. Perhaps in the spirit of bi-partisanship, the Caucus should invite and meet with the Republican Latino members like Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the ranking minority member on Rules Committee. Moving the over-all Latino Agenda will be challenging but focus, unity of purpose and excellent organization are imperative to success. The focus of this and several other blogs is to keep tabs and make our elected representatives more accountable.