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Yet Another "Third Rail" in American Politics?
Rahm Emanuel’s Political Pragmatism on Immigration
by TOM BARRY

Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff signals that political pragmatism, not campaign promises to Latinos, may determine immigration policy in the new administration.

It’s not that Congressman Emanuel (D-IL) is a foe of immigration, but rather that he seems to have concluded that comprehensive immigration reform is not a winning political proposition for Democrats.

As Illinois congressional representative since 2003, Emanuel has repeatedly held the line against the immigration restrictionists and border security hardliners. For the restrictionists, he has a failing record.

During his first year in Congress, the Federation for American Immigration Reform gave Cong. Emanuel (D-IL) a 0% rating, with the number reflecting the percentage of time that Emanuel voted FAIR’s preferred position. Other restrictionist organizations that track congressional votes agree with FAIR’s assessment that Emanuel is irredeemably liberal when it comes to immigration reform.

NumbersUSA, the organization that spearheaded the grassroots mobilization against the Senate’s 2007 immigration reform bill, gives Emanuel a failing lifetime position. He flunked the NumbersUSA test, receiving an "F" on his "immigration-reduction report card." U.S. Border Control—another restrictionist group—gave Cong. Emanuel an 8% rating, citing his "open-border stance."

In other words, Emanuel, picked to exert control over Obama’s team and its policy agenda, is about as bad as you can get if fighting immigration is your central concern. He cosponsored the McCain-Kennedy reform proposal, voted "no" on building a border fence, and even cast a "no" vote on a bill that would require hospitals to notify immigration agents when treating illegal immigrants.

But immigration restrictionists aren’t particularly worried. That’s because Emanuel, after the drubbing that immigration reform received in mid-2007, let it be known that the Democratic leadership in Congress wouldn’t be pushing comprehensive reform in 2008—or anytime in the first term of the next administration.

Calling immigration the "third rail" of American politics, Emanuel began backing away from comprehensive reform in 2007, even as he continued to oppose overly restrictive immigration and border bills.

Emanuel has come under fire from Latino columnist Ruben Navarrette for keeping immigration reform off the table this year. "House Democrats, under orders from Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-IL, kept the controversial issue off the legislative agenda in 2008. Why? Organized labor. Democrats’ slavish adherence to unions required that they derail any proposal that includes guest workers, as any bill with a chance to win Republican support would have to do," wrote Navarrette.

The San Diego Union-Tribune columnist also took the opportunity to criticize Sen. Obama for having "supported a series of ‘poison pill’ amendments intended to weaken guest-worker provisions and drive away Republicans. Obama even proposed one such amendment himself." Navarrette’s opinion that it was really the Democrats, not the Republicans, that killed comprehensive reform in 2007 has been widely challenged but echoed by Sen. McCain in a Spanish-language ad during the presidential campaign.

Obama is against these programs for the most part as are not just unions but also progressive immigrants and immigrant-advocacy groups, who argue that they create an underclass of workers, eroding their civil and labor rights. More conservative Latino organizations and the Bush administration strongly support the concept, as do many Democratic congressional members. This is one of the main reasons Emanuel and others view immigration reform as so difficult.

At the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza, Juan Salgado, board chairman of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, shocked participants, stating: "Congressman Rahm Emanuel said to me two weeks ago, there is no way this legislation is happening in the Democratic House, in the Democratic Senate, in the Democratic presidency, in the first term."

Emanuel’s office confirmed the congressman’s statement and his assessment of the political realities concerning immigration reform. Emanuel’s spokesman Nick Pappas told the Washington Times: "Congressman Emanuel has worked hard to make comprehensive reform a reality and that work continues. However, President Bush and congressional Republicans’ failure on this critical matter has set back efforts to enact real reform."

In turn, Salgado said, "I was caught off-guard by the statement. I interpret his comments as a lack of courage on what they know is right. Listen, we’re here at the NCLR conference, and what it’s going to take is not the attitude of Rahm Emanuel. What it’s going to take is boldness by the president."

On the night of his victory, President-elect Obama told Americans and the world that his electoral triumph demonstrated that "all things are possible" in America.

But comprehensive immigration reform is one of the things that just may not be possible given the rabid opposition of grassroots restrictionists, the still-sizable Republican opposition, the strength of "moderate" Democrats, and the lack of political will among liberal Democrats. Not during the campaign or in his short career in the Senate has comprehensive immigration reform been a priority for Obama, and it likely won’t be a priority as president, despite a July promise at the National Council of La Raza convention to tackle the issue.

"I think it’s time for a president who won’t walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform just because it becomes politically unpopular," the then-presumptive party nominee said. "I will make it a top priority in my first year as the president of the United States of America."

But with the nation facing rapidly rising unemployment, immigration reform may be pushed back deep into a second term.

On election night Obama warned supporters at Grant Park in Chicago that with the nation facing the challenge of two wars and an economic downturn, his decisions wouldn’t be popular with everyone. " The road ahead will be long," he said. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."

With respect to immigration, immigrant advocates are expressing hope that immigration reform will be possible and that the nation will get there soon—in the first term or even in the first year.

What’s particularly worrying, though, is that the stasis that now defines immigration policy may allow the enforcement-only regimen instituted so forcefully and thoroughly by the Bush administration and his homeland security department to remain the order not just for the next few months but for the next four years or more. Even worse, given that Obama has supported the building of the border fence and a strong employee verification policy, immigration enforcement may actually deepen.

In the absence of a bold initiative by the Obama team to stop the raids and assert its determination to "bring people out of the shadows," as the Obama-Biden campaign promised, it’s possible that an "enforcement-only" immigration policy will continue to do its dirty work for some time to come.

What’s certain is that the road ahead for the pro-immigration camp and immigrant advocates will be long, and the climb to immigration reform very steep indeed.

TOM BARRY directs the TransBorder Project of the Americas Policy Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC. He blogs at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com/.