US immigrant community prods Obama to keep his promises (Feature)
By Silvia Ayuso and Chris Cermak Mar 24, 2010, 6:01 GMT
Washington - With US President Barack Obama finally signing major health care reforms into law, a series of lobby groups are vying to make their concerns the next big priority of his young administration.
Obama has a lot remaining on his plate.
Unemployment is still stubbornly high, and financial regulatory reforms to prevent a fresh economic crisis are just beginning to be debated in the Senate. Obama has also promised major energy reforms to curb climate change.
While much of the United States was focused on a crucial final health vote Sunday in the House of Representatives, it was pro- immigration protesters outside who were hoping to convince Obama that they should be the next big thing on his domestic agenda.
'Yes we can! Yes we can!' rang the chant from demonstrators in Washington, estimated at more than 100,000 by organizers, co-opting Obama's winning campaign slogan as a reminder of his far-reaching promises on immigration during the 2008 presidential election.
As for most of the last year, health care managed to push immigration out of the media spotlight as Obama finally won approval for his top domestic priority. On Tuesday he signed into law the most sweeping changes to the health sector in four decades.
Like the long-running heath debate, the immigrant community is demanding changes to a system that has stumbled in several past administrations. Former president George W Bush last tried to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, but failed as most of his own Republican Party opposed the effort.
Demonstrators waved US flags and the flags of many Latin American and Asian countries.
Families endured more than five hours of marching as children held signs saying 'no dividan a mi familia' or 'don't divide my family,' to denounce deportations. Others carried crosses with the names of those who died in attempts to reach the US.
Karn Saetong, a young man of South Korean origin who travelled to Washington from Chicago for the march, said he was not disappointed that the protest was being overshadowed.
'There's always going to be something - it's health care, it's the economy, jobs or climate,' Saetong said. 'Obama promised there would be an immigration reform and hasn't kept any of those promises.'
Mallika Dutt, director of the human rights and pro-immigration organization Breakthrough, insisted on seeing the unfortunate coincidence as an opportunity.
'Really, it's important that this march took place on the same day as the (health) reform,' Dutt said. 'Everything is part of one progressive agenda, and I think symbolically it's very important that we're all here today. We have to keep up the pressure.'
There was some small movement in Congress last week, as two key senators released a bipartisan 'framework' for reforming the system after months of negotiations.
But Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who proposed a rival bill in the House of Representatives in December, warned that patience is running out.
'We've come to the front door of American history to say that the wait is over, the time is now,' Gutierrez said to loud applause from the crowd of demonstrators. 'It's time to let immigrants come out of the shadows.'
Immigration reform has long been a divisive topic in the United States, with the biggest divide coming over how to treat an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who currently live in the country.
Obama supports providing illegal immigrants with a pathway toward citizenship and has said he is committed to achieving bipartisan consensus on immigration reform this year.
But with mid-term elections of the whole of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate coming up in November, there is unlikely to be a major push by lawmakers in the coming months.
Dutt said many voters will be angry if immigration reform fails to pass ahead of the mid-term elections. She stressed that Obama does not even need the approval of Congress to stop policies like mass deportations or to improve conditions for detained migrants.
Many lawmakers are aware that the controversial health care reforms already upset many of their constituents and are not likely to take risks on another touchy issue like immigration.
Pro-immigration groups, however, are hoping to turn that argument on its head by pointing to the growing political clout of Hispanics. Latinos make up about 15 per cent of the US population and are growing faster than white or African-American communities.
'We will respond in November with our votes, and those that are against (reforms) we will send back home,' vowed Eliseo Medina, vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Still, the mountain to climb is high. Marco Lemus, a Honduran immigrant who lives in Virginia, admitted he was resigned to not seeing the reform happen this year.
'We have to be realistic,' he said. 'I doubt that there will be immigration reform this year, but hope is the last thing to go, and the fight continues daily.'