Hispanics, Administration Sets Sights on Next Immigration Fight

Like everyone else, the Hispanic community breathed a sigh of relief when the House passed legislation late on Tuesday to avert a tax increase for households making less than $450,000. Latinos are now bracing for the next stage of the fight on spending, hoping to protect government investments in workers, education, and infrastructure.

But that doesn't mean Hispanics have forgotten about immigration, the issue that brought them to the forefront of politics and is expected to take center stage this year if President Obama gets his way.

For their part, White House officials know that they can't wait for easier political times to push on immigration. With 72 percent of Hispanics casting their votes for Obama in November, the White House's political clout on immigration is the strongest it's going to get. "You can't wait for a completely cloudless day to enjoy the sun," said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.

White House officials have a little bit of time — maybe a month or two — to figure

out how they want to roll out Obama's immigration plan, which would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and stronger enforcement of illegal-immigrant labor. On the one hand, they don't want to hand their critics talking points that say the White House is offering lip service only, Kelley said. On the other hand, they don't want to appear as though they are writing legislation without input from Congress.

The high-stakes fiscal-cliff poker game has thus far has dominated Washington, to the exclusion of everything else. Hispanics have watched every turn of development on the budget and tax debate because it affects them; they will account for 80 percent of workforce growth between now and 2050, according to the National Council of La Raza. But immigration is never a forgotten topic.

"The economy is on their minds, but immigration is in their hearts," said Janis Bowdler, the director of NCLR's Wealth-Building Policy Project. "In the polls, economy and jobs are always the No. 1 issue. Where politicians land on immigration and how they talk about it can shape the voters' views and reactions."

NCLR is in constant contact with its grassroots affiliates around the country on any number of pocketbook issues: mortgage assistance, student aid, Social Security. Some 700 NCLR members joined a conference call before Christmas to learn about the stakes for Latinos in the fiscal-cliff debate. "We have a tremendous response in our community to understand what is going on here. It builds off of the enthusiasm from the election," Bowdler said.

The postelection importance of Hispanics means there will more attention to immigration, even as the budget wars rage on. "It was like "˜Whoa, we just did that,' " Bowdler said of the Hispanic voter turnout. "It's that engagement and power that the community is really growing into."

This article appeared in the Thursday, January 3, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.