Sunday, February 06, 2011

Just A Campaign Issue

My visit to Watching America was another interesting one. A great number of the articles dealt with Washington's stance on the Egyptian turmoil, which is pretty much what I expected. The article which really grabbed my attention, however, was on an entirely different issue, immigration.

From La Tribuna (Honduras):

In President Barack Obama’s address on the state of the nation, two issues are of particular interest to us. The first is his announcement of a tour of three Latin American countries: “This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador to forge new alliances across the Americas.” ...

The other issue relates to immigration reform. In a speech that was vague, providing no clear details, focusing on how Americans must commit “to win the future,” he again insisted on immigration reform and the so-called Dream Act, aimed at the legalization of many of young people who wish to pursue college or enlist in the military. ... As for immigration reform, which was promised to Hispanics during his campaign and is the reason why he won the favor of the Hispanic minority, he has not been able to attain one iota of an agreement. ...

Well, the issue of immigration reform has been politicized, linked to election campaigns, one way or another, to the extent that undocumented Hispanics in the United States are victims of more hostility every day. Several states have introduced legislation or are in the process of criminalizing their stay, making them the focus of racial discrimination. The immigration problem — especially now that drug violence has intensified in the border areas with Mexico — was treated as a political issue in the last legislative election campaign. One side demonizes immigrants, while the other seeks to placate Hispanic voters. ...

March is less than a month away, and I doubt very much that the crisis in Egypt will be fully resolved by that time, which means that the president is going to be faced with a very practical dilemma. If he postpones the trip, it will be seen by our Latin American neighbors as another snub as once again the US demonstrates the Middle East is a far more important region than Latin America. If he makes the trip but cannot come up with some practical solutions beyond the vague "I'm for immigration reform which has a human face" mantra which has been recycled from his campaign speeches time and again, then the trip will be seen merely as another attempt at "free trade" which benefits the US but does nothing for the rest of the hemisphere.

But the article makes an even more basic point about US relations with Latin America. The only time the most visible issue between the US and its neighbors is ever addressed is during election campaigns. The rest of the time it is either ignored (as it essentially was during the first two years of the Obama administration) or merely the staple of pre-campaign posturing (see my post here).

The temptation is to cut the president some slack because he has to deal with a congress that has been reluctant to face the immigration issue squarely, especially given the other pressing issues the past two years (a sunk economy and the concomitant joblessness).

But the president is not only the nation's leader, he is also his party's leader, and Congress was under Democratic control until January. He chose not to lead on this issue. Now, with the Republicans hold on the House it will be even more difficult to get a sane and humane immigration reform bill passed. Yet that is exactly what he needs to do. He needs to actually lead, not just look for a mealy-mouthed consensus.

And he needs to do that while dealing with all of the other issues on his plate, including Egypt. He has to walk and chew gum at the same time. Surely that is the least we can expect from our president.



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