Obama Has Mojo: Health Reform’s Lessons for Immigration Reform

By Sandip Roy, New America Media – Republished with permission.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice - Photo: AV.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. (Photo: AV)

An estimated 200,000 people showed up at the National Mall on March 21 calling for immigration reform. But the march was overshadowed by the dramatic passage of health care reform. What are the lessons from health care reform for those pushing for a reform of the country’s immigration laws? New America Media speaks with Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based immigration advocacy group America’s Voice. Press ‘play’ to listen:

[audio:http://media.namx.org/audio/nan_radio/2010/03/franksharry_immigration.mp3] What lessons are you drawing from how health care reform eventually came to pass?

One, the president has mojo after all. He had to contend with scared Democrats, obstinate Republicans and fractious constituency groups. And he persevered, and as a result they made history. That’s pretty much the same formula we need on immigration reform. Obviously the delay in health care reform compresses the calendar for us to get it done and this is an election year, but we think the window of opportunity is open for a few months.

Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the co-sponsor of the Schumer-Graham immigration bill, said before the bill was signed, ‘The first casualty of the Democratic health care bill will be immigration reform. If the health care bill goes through this weekend, that will, in my view, pretty much kill any chance of immigration reform passing the Senate this year.’ What is your reaction?

I think what he is saying is that the toxic atmosphere of partisanship on Capitol Hill will make it difficult to move on legislation like immigration reform that needs bipartisanship. But I doubt if a spat over a procedural matter will end all chances of immigration reform. But if Republicans do stand in the way, they will once again be blamed for blocking immigration reform and putting themselves behind the eight ball politically with the fastest growing group of new voters in the country. I think it’s more bluster and bluff. And I think we have a good chance of seeing a bipartisan bill being introduced in April.

Do you really think the Democrats have the stomach for another protracted fight?

I think many Democrats have realized after health care reform that they were elected to take on the tough issues and they are going to be judged, come November, on their record of accomplishment, not on how many post offices they named. Look, the Democrats and Obama inherited a huge mess. The country wants change. They voted for change. And if they don’t get change, they will keep voting for change.

Our advice to Democrats – lean into these issues, take them on, fight hard for them and let the politics take care of itself. The politics of immigration are so misunderstood inside the Beltway. The pundits say it’s too hard, maybe it mobilizes Latinos, but it hurts you with swing voters and arouses the right in a way that will make health care look like a garden party. The fact is, I think the immigration debate will look a lot more like the Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation fight, where nine Republicans voted for her confirmation. I think we will see Tea Partiers on the outside but we may see more of a Sotomayor-like tone on the inside.

Is that why you released an internal poll of Latinos and the 2010 elections? Did you make it public to put pressure on the parties?

Exactly. We have been saying immigration reform is a threshold issue for Latino voters, with tremendous intensity among Latino immigrant voters. Many in the political class say, ‘No, they don’t really care that much.’ But what I think you saw a demonstration of on Sunday, March 21 is 200,000 people saying this issue is what defines whether the political class is respecting us or not. This is what Katrina was for many African-American voters. If [Democrats] do lean into this issue, Republicans will have to deal with something that divides them. So Democrats would be wise to do that, rather than hide behind their desks until November.

Since no Republicans voted for health care, would they be on the defensive when it comes to immigration reform? As in, they would look even more like the party of ‘no’ if they also oppose immigration?

It looked like a good strategy when health care reform was on the ropes. It does not look like such a good strategy now when what they have done is said no to covering 32 million people. Many people are divided about whether the reform package is good or not, but polling shows people are quite pleased Congress is actually doing something. I think Republicans are going to have to stand up to the far right and say, ‘This is an issue we have to get off the table and that we should share credit with. If we wait too long, it will be too late for us.’

In 2006, 23 Republican senators voted for a version of comprehensive immigration reform. Despite a more right-leaning bill in 2007, that was essentially written with the help of the Bush White House, only 12 Republican senators voted for it. Take a look at it now. What’s our universe of possible gettable Republican senators – probably in the neighborhood of 10. I think the Republican Party has made a historic mistake in losing the advantages that were built up with George W. Bush reaching out to this community. Now they are on the verge of looking like the party of ‘no,’ not just on all manner of issues, but to Latino voters.

Health care as it finally passed was very different from health care reform as was proposed. While you don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, are you satisfied with the Schumer-Graham proposal as the starting point here? Is there enough room for compromise as there definitely will have to be?

They have issued a blue print. It’s not highly detailed yet. It has the right elements. Sure, they couch it in very conservative terms, law and order terms. The solution to the problem of unauthorized immigration is you combine some smart targeted enforcement, in particular going after employers who are unscrupulous, with a way people here illegally can get on the path to citizenship, get to the back of the line, etc.

But grassroots groups are saying the Schumer-Graham bill is much more onerous on people trying to legalize themselves, that it could mean waiting 20 years outside the United States.

None of those details are known yet. What has been represented to us is the legalization program will have low fees, a six or seven year period of conditional status. What’s onerous is the current situation in which every day people are being picked up, detained and deported. The Obama administration is on track to surpass the Bush administration’s record of deporting some 400,000 people a year. This is a human rights crisis in immigrant communities.

Insurance companies and chambers of commerce spent millions trying to defeat health care reform. Is the hope for immigration reform that a lot of business is in support of it?

The best part is we won’t have zillions of dollars being spent against it, as they did in health care reform, by the business community. Businesses generally are in favor or not opposed. The opposition comes from a virulent and visible anti-immigrant movement that is very effective at mobilizing people who want to deport 11 million people and keep the people who look different out of the country. I don’t think we will be facing zillions of dollars in ads but we will be facing millions of faxes from angry people.

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