Who’s next? Commerce Secretary Gary Locke today was the latest of the White House cabinet secretaries to get on the horn and beg lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow undocumented teens to earn legal status after they complete college or serve in the military.
Perhaps more importantly, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecelia Munoz, a longtime advocate for immigrants, joined the conference call. She emphasized President Obama’s commitment to the bill, which is the easiest and least controversial of measures to ease pressures on illegal immigrants. “It’s incredibly important. This should be as clear as possible,” she said.
The White House may finally be waking up to the frenzied shouts of the Hispanic and immigrant advocacy communities, who argue that Obama needs to demonstrate his support for immigration overhaul or they’re going to stay home on Election Day in 2012. Obama pledged after his election to make a broad immigration measure a priority. In practical terms, the White House’s commitment on immigration has taken a back seat to other issues—health care being the biggest one—which has irked many Hispanics.
On Thursday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made her plea for the Dream Act. Education Secretary Arne Duncan did so this week, too. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also has expressed support, although he hasn’t joined the recent chorus of White House-arranged conference calls.
“In addition to Secretary Locke, we have a great deal of the cabinet involved,” Munoz said. “We’re keeping the president abreast of everything. … We’re in constant contact with the Hill with respect to vote counts.”
To be sure, the arguments the administration has rolled out are carefully crafted to strategically pick off “gettable” Republicans, such as Sens. Olympia Snow and Susan Collins of Maine, George LeMieux of Florida, and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. It’s not clear that they’ll be successful, but it gives them a chance to hone a range of talking points.
There is the national security argument: Some of the young people eligible for the Dream Act want to fulfill their obligations by serving in the military.
There is the immigration enforcement argument: Napolitano claims the bill will help her agency focus on the criminal aliens they want to go after, not the people who came to the country illegally as children with their parents.
There is the economic argument: Every year, more than 50,000 star undocumented students don’t go to college, leaving a gap in the college graduate rate and future skilled workforce. “Many of these kids have spent years in our publicly funded state schools,” Locke said. “The American taxpayer has invested in them. Unless we pass the Dream Act, we’re going to keep throwing away this hard-earned investment.”
It’s not clear that any of the talk is going to nudge Senate Republicans, who are fighting with Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada over the very idea of remaining in session. They don’t even bother discussing the substance of the Dream Act.
In the House, Democratic control turns into a pumpkin as soon as Congress adjourns, so Democratic leaders are planning a floor vote next week over Republican objections. One immigrant advocacy group is planning a “watching party” for the House vote.
Immigrant activists have learned one thing after watching an immigration overhaul bill die on the vine three years ago and then languish in obscurity—be aggressive when the chance arises again. Even though the Dream Act represents a tiny portion of the massive rewrite they’re looking for, advocacy groups are flooding Washington with calls and e-mails making sure policymakers know that they’re paying attention.
Munoz, considered the White House voice on immigration, reassured the Hispanic and immigrant groups that the president is listening. “We have a tough environment ahead, but I don’t like to talk in terms of last chances,” she said. “The president is going to keep working on a broader immigration bill, because we believe the system is broken. We will plan to continue to press ahead.”