CNN Columnist: Immigration Reform Must Wait

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, wants to bump immigration to the top of the President's agenda. But is it realistic for the House and Senate to take up immigration reform next year? Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist for CNN.com, explains why he thinks Guitierrez's timeline is unrealistic.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

We just heard Congressman Gutierrez make the case that the House and Senate should take up the issue of immigration reform early next year. But how realistic or likely is that? For a political gut check, we decided to call our regular contributor Ruben Navarrette. He's a syndicated columnist and writes for cnn.com and the San Diego Union Tribune and joins us now by phone from San Diego. Hi, there, Ruben.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Jennifer, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good. So, you just heard the congressman, February, March, that is the window to pass an immigration overhaul. Do you see it happening?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No, I do not. That window's not big enough. Those of us who remember that debate the last time around know that it takes you two, three months to just get - clear your throat and get all the accusations on the table hurling back and forth. I understand the logic of sort of, at this point at least, completing health care reform before - I would have put immigration reform before health care reform. Health care is just as divisive as immigration.

Certainly, the president has shown his ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, do a variety of things at once in a while. Latinos are concerned, and others are concerned that - businesses and others are concerned that immigration won't get tended to.

LUDDEN: But really immigration reform in the midst of a jobless recovery or you know the continuing recession, is that really good politics?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, this is never a good time. I mean, you look back on throughout our history in the 1960s, you know so much of what Martin Luther King talked about in his book "Why We Can't Wait" was an answer to white liberals who said, you know, just be patient, wait, it's not a good time. And this, for people who see this as a civil rights issue, there's never a good time. There's never going to be a good time.

And the weird thing, one of the quirks about our system is we have elections in even numbered years, but we do business and pass laws in odd number years. So really, it's unrealistic to think it can get done in 2010. The choices for Obama were always 2009 or 2011. It's starting to look more and more like 11.

LUDDEN: Okay, so what about the argument then say it's in 2011. But it's such a heated polarizing issue.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

LUDDEN: That then it could backfire and hurt President Obama's chances for reelection in 2012.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think President Obama is already hurting his chances for reelection frankly, having nothing at all to do with the immigration debate. He's down a number of percentage points with white voters, with independent voters. I don't think that's all his fault, frankly, but I think a lot of his support is diminishing which makes it all the more important that he keep those Latino voters in the fold.

LUDDEN: Because as we recall from the last election, there were about four key states where Hispanics, by all polling accounts, really helped push him over the top.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, plus he got two-thirds of the Hispanic vote overall. I mean, the parallel I would draw is with folks in the gay community who are likewise getting impatient and frustrated with his inability to deliver on Don't Ask Don't Tell. The president means well. He goes forward and speaks to gay groups and talks about I'm going to end the ban on Don't Ask Don't Tell.

He goes to Hispanic groups and he promises immigration reform. Either he needs to deliver or he needs to stop doing that. He needs to stop promising it. Because every time he brings it up, people are beginning to wonder well, then why aren't you doing it? When are you going to do it? And so, he means well but I think he's cooking his own goose, because he keeps reminding those constituents that he hasn't delivered for them. And he's going to need those gay votes. He's going to need those Latino votes to be reelected because he's losing independents and whites.

LUDDEN: And you think that outweighs the votes he might lose maybe among moderates if he were to pass immigration reform?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think as I said, I don't think people identify Barack Obama with immigration like they did George Bush, for better or for worse. There are people who voted against George Bush because they disagree with him on immigration reform. I don't think people are voting against or will vote against Barack Obama in 2012 because of his stance on immigration reform. It's not something that he is passionate about.

It's not something he's owned as an issue. Health care is something he's passionate about. He talks about his own mother's experience in the health care system. But you know if you want somebody who's passionate, Luis Gutierrez just gave you an example of someone who's passionate about this issue. I don't think the issue hurts Barack Obama. But I do think that he needs to deliver.

LUDDEN: You know, I just want to ask you about these two trends we've been seeing. During the recession, there has been a really big drop off in people crossing into the U.S. illegally over the southern border. There has not been a large number of people already here leaving. The undocumented in the U.S. so far are riding out the downturn. How do you think this might impact any prospects for immigration reform?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: A good question. You know, I think there's probably less pressure on the border now, obviously, because of the economy. But most people take the long view and know that when the economy improves, those people will be coming back. And so it's sort of a temporary fix, if you will, to the problem. And I think most people still, who thought there was a problem, still think there's a problem.

People on the right and the left both want immigration reform. They just define it in fundamentally different ways. People on the right see it as more enforcement, more control over the border. But people over the left see it as, you know, providing a pathway to citizenship or legalization. So, you know, nobody I think has been placated by the changing economics on the border. They realize that's going to change. When the economy improves, they will come back.

LUDDEN: Syndicated columnist, Ruben Navarrette joined us by phone from San Diego. Thanks so much.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: Just ahead, the plight of undocumented Haitians.

Ms. GEPSIE METELLUS (Executive Director, Haitian Neighborhood Center): Repatriating or deporting these people would be against everything we stand for.

LUDDEN: But will President Obama allow them to stay in the U.S. legally. We'll have that conversation next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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