One can only hope that columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. of the San Diego Union-Tribune is just being pessimistic when he tells readers “don’t hold your breath” waiting for President-elect Barack Obama to pursue comprehensive immigration reform. In July, Obama pledged at the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference to make immigration reform “a top priority” of his administration during his first year in the White House. But Navarrette suspects this pledge will be sacrificed upon the altar of realpolitik as the electoral debt that Obama owes to Latino voters collides with the debt he owes to organized labor. In previous years, proponents of immigration reform have proposed the creation of a new temporary worker program as part of the comprehensive reform effort, but labor leaders have opposed the idea. Navarrette fears that, if Obama is forced to choose between Latinos and labor, Latinos will lose.
Of course, the Latino-vs.-labor dichotomy that Navarrette presents is somewhat artificial given that Latinos are themselves workers who have rejuvenated many sectors of a labor movement that had been in a state of long-term decline. This fact is not lost on the AFL-CIO, for instance, which now champions many of the policies which are essential to effective immigration reform—minus a temporary worker program. Still, even if the fate of immigration reform does come down to some sort of Machiavellian choice between the interests of “workers” and “Latinos” in the abstract, it would be politically foolhardy of the Obama administration to throw Latinos to the wind. As the Wall Street Journal points out: “While Latinos were key to Sen. Obama’s victories in both Nevada and New Mexico, where he lost the non-Hispanic white vote, their support also was crucial in hotly contested states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania.”
In other words, trying to forget about immigration reform and other issues of concern to Latino voters now that the 2008 election is over would be tantamount to forgetting about any chance of winning re-election in 2012. I suspect that Obama and his team are acutely aware of this fact.