On the eve of the inaugural, a coalition of Latino organizations gathered to lay out their priorities for the Obama administration. At the top of their list was immigration: amnesty for the estimated 13 million illegal aliens living in the United States and still higher levels of government-mandated immigration.
These professional ethnic-interest advocates came to Washington touting that Latino voters favored Barack Obama over John McCain by a better than 2-1 margin and "to settle debts accrued during the campaign season," according to an article on the New York Times website. But aside from the fact that Obama would have coasted to victory even without his sizable advantage among Latino voters, this coalition managed to overlook one other important detail: More immigration is not what Latino voters want.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a respected Washington think tank, took the trouble to ask Latinos what issues they considered to be "extremely important." For 57% of the respondents to its poll, released just before the inauguration, the economy was the most important issue. Close behind were education and healthcare. Rounding out the top five were national security and the environment.
Although the groups purporting to represent the interests of Latinos in the U.S. have set amnesty for illegal aliens and higher levels of immigration as their No. 1 priority, immigration ranks only sixth among the concerns of ordinary Latinos. Fewer than one in three Latinos in the U.S. surveyed, 31%, rated immigration as an extremely important issue.
And of the five issues Latinos rated as their highest priorities for President Obama to address, all of them would be made more difficult by amnesty and higher levels of immigration.
The economy. With the economy shedding jobs at a rate of half a million a month, legalizing 13 million illegal aliens and adding to the already record levels of government-mandated immigration would be like dousing a flame with gasoline.
Education. The schools attended by predominantly Latino students are affected the most by immigration. In 2004, about 44% of the students attending the Los Angeles public school system were classified as "limited English proficient," according to the latest district information available. Nationwide, the 2006 dropout rate among Latinos in the U.S. was 22% -- double the rate for African American students and quadruple that of whites.
Healthcare. Immigrants and their U.S.-born children accounted for 71% of the increase in the medically uninsured population between 1989 and 2007, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. In all, 34% of immigrant households lack basic health insurance, compared with 13% of the native-born population.
National security. America's already dysfunctional system for processing immigration could not possibly handle the tens of millions of amnesty applications they would likely receive. As in the much smaller amnesty of 1986, the government likely would resort to rubber-stamping applications without conducting adequate background checks.
The environment. The Census Bureau projects that at current immigration levels, the U.S. population will grow by 135 million people over the next 40 years. An amnesty, coupled with higher immigration levels, would surely send us over the half-a-billion mark by midcentury, effectively dooming all environmental initiatives.
The agenda being pressed by the ethnic-interest and immigration advocacy groups has nothing to do with the concerns or well-being of Latinos in the United States. Rather, in direct contrast to President Obama's inaugural declaration "that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve," it is about raw political power.
"I anticipate a dramatic shift in power toward heavily Latino parts of the United States" after the next census, said Simon Rosenberg, director of the New Democratic Network, an advocacy group that is pro-amnesty. "Remember: In redistricting, we count people, not citizens."
Throughout the campaign and standing on the west portico of the Capitol, Obama has sought to inspire the nation toward a common purpose. Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are prepared to answer his call. Whether on immigration or countless other issues, the nation is hungry for a leader who demonstrates through action that his only debt is to the American people.
Ira Mehlman is media director of the Federation for Immigration Reform's Los Angeles office.