As I noted yesterday, the chances of getting an immigration-reform bill passed this year dimmed dramatically in the wake of Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special election. Last night President Obama’s SOTU speech pretty much snuffed out any remaining possibility. He waited until roughly word 6,300 of a 7,000-word speech to address the issue. He devoted all of one sentence to it (“And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system,” etc. etc.). And he offered no specifics for a potential measure or timeline to get it done. That fleeting reference was “a crumb that was placed on the domestic-policy-agenda table to really satisfy the hunger of the immigrant and Latino communities,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which has pushed for a reform package. “It was the death knell of immigration reform in 2010.”
This is no surprise. Given that much of last year was squandered on a health-care debate that has yet to produce an agreement, and given that Americans are clamoring for the administration to focus on jobs and the economy, immigration has fallen far down the priority list, for both the president and Congress. “I don’t think there’s been a diminution in the desire to do it,” says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, which has also pressed for an overhaul. “But there’s a greater recognition that the pipeline got backed up in 2009.” The top two priorities now, he says, are a jobs bill and financial-services reform. “If those get done, and Washington is working better, then I think other things will be possible this year.” Even, perhaps, immigration reform, though he says it may well get pushed to 2011.
The pro-reform forces, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and advocacy organizations, are mostly striking a measured and realistic tone. They realize that Obama has his hands full, that he’s rightly focused on jobs, and that it’s perhaps time to regroup on the immigration front. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who introduced a reform proposal in the House in December and has often expressed impatience with the administration’s handling of the issue, had mostly supportive words for Obama in a blog posting this morning. Though he lamented the president’s cursory mention of immigration in last night’s speech, he argued that ultimately it was up to Congress to seize the reins. Lawmakers “cannot wait for the President to lay out our timeline for comprehensive reform,” he wrote.
For now, Hispanic voters appear to be cutting Obama some slack. “From the perspective of the Latino community, the most pressing issue is the economy and job creation,” says Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza, just as it is for Americans generally. Even in good economic times, immigration usually ranks as only a midlevel concern for Hispanic voters. The problem, however, is if they perceive that the president has betrayed them on the issue. At this point, that’s not the prevailing sentiment. “We know that he’s committed, that he’s opened the door to make progress on the issue,” says Martinez. But there’s “definitely an expectation that there will be movement [on an immigration overhaul], and there will be disappointment if that doesn’t happen.” My guess is he’s safe not dealing with it this year. But if he waits beyond 2011, Hispanics’ patience may wear out.