La Raza Protests Shows Immigration Reform Could Still Be Used As a Political Wedge

Sen. Barack Obama’s speech at today’s National Council of La Raza (NCLR) conference introduced little new in terms of policy or rhetoric, but it served as a reminder that immigration reform could still be used as a wedge issue in the presidential election.

As he did in his speeches to the National Associate of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Obama made a speech that emphasized the importance of the Latino vote, promised to get an immigration reform bill passed within his first 100 days in office and attacked Sen. John McCain for ultimately withdrawing support for the 2006 immigration reform proposal he had originally sponsored.

La Opinion reported that for the nearly 20,000 people in attendance the reaction to the speech was emotional and overwhelmingly positive; Obama also got a standing ovation from the mainly Latino crowd of activists and advocates at last week’s LULAC conference, where the candidate emphasized his own immigrant background.

But outside the convention hall, Obama’s speech and promises on immigration reform were greeted with jeers. About sixty members of the Minute Men, the self-proclaimed anti-immigration militia that patrols the US – Mexico border to stop illegal immigration, lined up with placards in opposition to NCLR, the nation’s oldest Latino civil rights group – and one of the most powerful.

The San Diego Union Tribune reported that one man carried a sign that showed a cartoon boy urinating on a sign that read “NCLR.” The man carrying the sign claimed that it was not against Latinos but the organization that represented them.

Chuck Malon, another member of the Minute Men, told a La Opinion reporter, “NCLR helps the illegal invasion. Helps get drivers licenses. They’re destroying everything we’ve built in this country.”

The presence of the protesters, though small in number, is a reminder that despite the embrace of the Latino vote and the calls for immigration reform by both candidates, there is a segment of the American public that is as turned off by those campaign promises as those attending the conference were turned on.

It’s often the issues within the issue that can become lightning rods for controversy. Take the issue of drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants that Malon raised.

Last November, a highly publicized moment in a Democratic debate in Philadelphia showed Sen. Hillary Clinton unwilling to take a strong stand for or against drivers licenses. Clinton was criticized for not being a straight talker; after expressing initial support for New York’s then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to extend driver’s licenses to some undocumented residents.   Clinton’s popularity, especially in Iowa where illegal immigration was a concern, took a dive. Obama, who had also quietly approved Spitzer’s proposal, hedged his answer a bit as well (notably at another Democratic Presidential debate in Las Vegas) but ultimately has maintained support for the measure.

A few other states, including New Mexico and Utah, have extended driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants who can prove their identity and state residency without using immigration documents.

In the long run, in a Democratic primary, the issue never took precedence. But it’s often the nuances of highly publicized and polarizing issues that can turn even a bipartisan election year goal into the thorniest of political footballs. If anti-immigration sentiment grows over the course of the election cycle, look for Obama’s statements on supporting that measure to come up again.

Senator John McCain speaks at the NCLR conference later on today.

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