Hispanics want to make sure that, this time around, Obama sticks to his promise to tackle immigration. In his second term, the president must go after a broad immigration overhaul with the same zeal he showed on health care reform—or risk alienating a broad swath of the nation’s fastest-growing demographic.
He’s ready. He told the Des Moines Register before the election that immigration reform was his top priority once budget and tax issues are resolved. He won 71 percent of the Latino vote. Obama voters overwhelmingly said they want a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants—79 percent, according to exit polls. Half of Republican voters also said they wanted legalization. It’s as close to a “mandate” as Obama is going to get.
The biggest policy question will be how to legalize 11 million undocumented people in a way that won’t be seen as unfair to those who are waiting to become citizens legally. The biggest political question is how Republicans will handle the issue. GOP voters slammed Republican lawmakers for negotiating a legalization plan five years ago. Some lost their seats. In the wake of Romney’s loss, GOP operatives are emphasizing the party’s need to broaden its appeal to minorities, particularly Hispanics. But the calculus for congressional Republicans is somewhat different. Incumbents have to worry about whether a move to the center could leave them vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right. They will be looking only as far as 2014, not 2016.
Obama can’t rely on partisan maneuvers in Congress the way he did to pass health care reform, because some conservative Democrats are squeamish on immigration. He will need to offer compromises to Republicans, which could come in the form of new guest-worker programs or an end to open sponsorship rights for U.S. citizens to invite foreign family members into the country.
Still, Obama will need to make a better show of trying than he did in his first term. Back in 2008, he said that immigration was a top priority. Hispanics turned out in droves to help him win, and then nothing happened. Earlier this year, he created a temporary deferral program for illegal youth to shield them from deportation, but that is hardly the kind of sweeping change that Latinos and other Democrats are seeking.
“We are in a different position to demand and ask—and expect—a different delivery from President Obama,” says Lorella Praeli, an undocumented activist for United We Dream, a youth-led immigration-reform advocacy group. “The message is clear: freedom for 11 million.”