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Immigration: A Test for Democratic Leadership

In 2004, 44 percent of Latinos cast their votes for President Bush in his re-election victory over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Latino voters provided the critical margin of difference for the GOP in key battleground states such as Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.

Just two years later, however, as a result of inflammatory right-wing rhetoric over immigration, support for Republicans plummeted. According to exit polls, 70 percent of Latino voters supported Democratic candidates in the 2006 midterm elections. This dramatic swing in support helped propel Democrats to victory in the House and Senate. Were it not for the support of Latino voters, driven to the polls by Democratic promises to deliver meaningful immigration reform, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would still be backbenchers. Given the importance of the Latino vote, one would think that newly minted Democratic majorities would be working feverishly to deliver on the signature issue they campaigned on in our community — comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately, it is now clear that to keep the labor union bosses happy, Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives would prefer to play politics with our community.

The House Democratic leadership’s fealty to unions on this issue is particularly disappointing because the unions should be an ally of Latino workers. Instead of standing in the way of progress, unions should be pressing their Congressional allies to move on comprehensive immigration reform.

During the contentious immigration debates in 2006, unions told our community to march — and we did. They told our community to vote — and we did. Now should be the time for the unions to live up to their end of the bargain and support Latino workers. Instead of supporting us, however, the unions have betrayed us. Organized labor is working to block passage of comprehensive immigration reform. By choosing to stand in the way of the best interests of our community, these unions are making it clear to millions of Latino workers that they do not represent them.

Since a bipartisan compromise was reached in the Senate, a growing number of unions have come out in opposition to the comprehensive immigration deal. John Sweeney, the head of the powerful AFL-CIO, denounced the bill for creating a guest-worker program. Opposition to a guest-worker program makes it clear that the AFL-CIO values some workers more than the others. At least our community now knows where we stand with organized labor.

Since taking control in January, Democratic leadership has stalled on moving forward comprehensive immigration reform in either chamber. Pelosi recently stated that she would need the support of 70 Republican House Members before she would proceed with immigration reform.

Instead of setting intentionally unattainable benchmarks for GOP support, Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leadership in the House should demonstrate a little political courage. They should stop listening to the union bosses and political strategists and do what is right. Speaker Pelosi knows she can get this bill passed without the level of GOP support she is demanding. Her demand is little more than a sop to her union supporters and an irresponsible excuse to keep a partisan issue alive for the next campaign.

Some Democrats believe that keeping the immigration issue alive could benefit them at the polls. Democrats should recognize that they are taking a huge gamble. Fundamentally, Latino voters are swing voters. A candidate’s record and positions matter more to Latino voters than simple partisan affiliation. By failing to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform, Democratic politicians will be saddled with a record of empty campaign season promises.

Latino voters represent an increasingly critical voting bloc that will not be taken for granted by either party. If Democrats want to capitalize on the inroads they made among Latino voters in the 2006 elections, then now is the time to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform.

Robert Deposada is president of The Latino Coalition.

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