Yesterday, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano visited the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) with one clear message: the Latino community must turn out in force in November in order set the table for passing comprehensive immigration reform next year, telling the group that “your voice is your vote, man.” Secretary Napolitano also confronted the “secure the border first” rhetoric opponents consistently use to stall reform efforts, urging lawmakers to “quit moving the goal posts” and pointing out that the administration has met Congressional border benchmarks.

After two-thirds of Latino voters cast their vote for President Obama in 2008, they expected comprehensive immigration reform. Yet, as midterm elections loom, they have yet to even see a bill introduced in the Senate (Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez introduced an immigration reform bill late last year in the House). Many are understandably frustrated, but the current administration takes a different view. Democrats point out that Republicans have been the “party of no,” insisting that immigration reform cannot be passed until the borders are secure first.

Secretary Napolitano painted the border security refrain as empty rhetoric, stating that the border “is as secure now as it has ever been and getting more secure each day. We’ll never [completely] seal the border.” The U.S. also spends more money now on the border than ever before, with the Border Patrol budget alone climbing to over $3 billion in 2009, nine times what it was in 1992, and the combined Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection budgets rising to $17.2 billion in 2010.

Others see “secure the border first” claim as a different version of the same debate that has been playing out for the last two years—debates such as health care and the BP oil spill. Sam Stein points out:

This dynamic is hardly unique to the immigration debate. On health care reform, the administration forfeited a public option without any movement towards them by Republican moderates. Pre-BP oil spill, the White House committed itself to nuclear power and offshore drilling in energy and climate legislation with negligible benefits for overall negotiations.

Napolitano dismissed the border rhetoric, stating before the CHC:

When it comes to enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, I think there are two important questions. The first question is: Are the laws on the books the best our country can do, and the answer quite frankly is no. From a law-enforcement perspective we need Congress to fix our broken immigration system … the second question is, are we enforcing the laws we have in the best way possible. And here I think considering the major changes we have made and the effect that they are having, I believe the answer is yes.

However, Napolitano’s points on comprehensive immigration reform are likely moot if Democrats lose big in November. As Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico summarizes:

A Republican rout in November would usher in a class of Senate freshmen who ran on pledges of no amnesty for illegal immigrants—a changing of the guard that could doom President Barack Obama’s already faint chances of passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill in his first term.

Despite the unlikelihood that an immigration reform bill will be introduced before 2011, the next two months represent an important period for immigration reform advocates—one that will either set the table for reform or clear it before they even start. Politico estimated that depending on the outcome of November’s elections, immigration advocates could have as few as 30 supporters in the Senate, a far cry from the 73 who backed it in 2006 and the 46 behind a similar bill in 2007. The 30 likely supporters is not even close to the 60 needed to invoke cloture, leaving advocates of reform feeling helpless well before the 2010 elections have taken place.

But in light of the writing on the wall, many advocates are still pushing for Latinos to get out and vote in the midterm elections. As Secretary Napolitano reminded the CHC, “your voice is your vote, man. Your vote is the currency this town lives on.”

Photo by Rob Boudon