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Obama and immigration reform

The president says he's committed to immigration reform. Do his actions say otherwise?


I thought U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. was a little over the top last month when he called us "a nation of cowards" for our collective failure to adequately discuss our troubled racial past.

Less than a month later, officials at his Justice Department are believed to have pulled the plug on the nomination of Thomas Saenz, chief counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to head the department's civil rights division. Why? Apparently because of Saenz's past advocacy on behalf of immigrant rights.

You read that correctly. Saenz's past professional civil rights activism has evidently disqualified him from being the nation's top civil rights enforcer. If it's true, it's a decision that may be a troubling sign for those hoping President Obama is committed to comprehensive immigration reform.

Don't go looking for public griping from Latino members of Congress on the Saenz incident. On Wednesday, in what from all accounts was a love-fest between Obama and the entire Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the president reaffirmed his commitment to ... comprehensive immigration reform. In a breathless news release, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) cooed that "the American people are fortunate to have a president ready and willing to tackle the big issues of the day." In a telephone media briefing, leaders from some of the nation's most prominent immigrant rights organizations practically held hands and sang "Our Guy."

But just below the buzz of news releases and sound bites, some officials and advocates who care most about immigration reform are worried. True to form, irascible Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina was the only high-profile elected official to speak out. She was quoted as saying Saenz had been offered the nomination and accepted it. That the administration canceled the deal, she told the blog of the Legal Times, "speaks volumes of the lack of courage of the administration." Ouch. Several other activists expressed their own concerns to me off the record.

Before you jump to any conclusions, this is not a racial matter. The fellow who did get the top civil rights job, Maryland Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, is also Latino. Like Saenz, Perez has been a proponent of immigrant rights and even served as president of the board of a Maryland-based immigrant rights advocacy group.

So what's the story? Word is that the White House was scared off by the vocal opposition to Saenz from anti-immigrant groups. Indeed, when the news of an impending Saenz appointment surfaced, the response was predictable. Notably, the fiercely anti-immigrant Investor's Business Daily accused Saenz of being an open-borders advocate. It unearthed an old canard about the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where Saenz once worked, calling it a "radical group that wants to cede California to Mexico."

The positive spin from Obama supporters is that the White House wanted to keep its powder dry for a future full-on fight over immigration reform. And perhaps that's true. But to think that anti-immigrant extremists could kill the nomination of a man most would describe as a mainstream liberal, not to mention someone who is on the record as being opposed to the idea of open borders, is bothersome.

It's a familiar game in American politics to label your enemies as extremists. But this was clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. What were Saenz's presumed radical credentials that became political liabilities? His high-profile fight against Proposition 187, California's deeply flawed 1994 anti-immigrant ballot initiative, and his spearheading, on 1st Amendment grounds, of the fight for day laborers' right to solicit work on the street. Whether you agree with these positions or not, it's hard to label either as dangerously radical.

On Wednesday, in response to a question at a town hall appearance in Costa Mesa, the president said he supports an overhaul of immigration policy. But the question is open: Will Obama's actions match his rhetoric?

Saenz's apparent torpedoing doesn't bode well for what we all know is a crucial policy issue. If the White House doesn't push immigration reform sometime in the next four years, I guess I'll have to lighten up on the attorney general. We very well may be a nation of cowards.


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