Friend to the brown man? It remains to be seen...
Barack Obama achieved the presidency in part because of the votes of U.S. Hispanics. According the Pew Hispanic Center, 67 percent of Latinos voted for Obama over John McCain in 2008.
And yet, the Obama administration has given little more than lip-service to an issue that directly affects the extended families of many American Latinos: immigration reform.
Indeed, in Obama's State of the Union speech last night, the President effectively snubbed the concept of Comprehensive Immigration Reform by mentioning the subject only in passing, and even then, only in the context of national security.
"We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system," Obama told the U.S. Congress, "to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation."
That was it, one line, in a speech that rambled through such topics as campaign finance, bipartisanship, the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, gay rights, the environment, the financial bailout, and so on.
In essence, Obama's message to the 12 million undocumented squeaking by on the margins, and to those who advocate on their behalf, is: Don't hold your breath, amigos.
How does he get away with this, when more than 30 percent of America's foreign-born population is from Mexico alone, and when Hispanics have backed him in record numbers?
Easy, he and his political advisors can read the polls. As the Pew Hispanic Center noted in a November, 2009 analysis, "Immigration has been a low- to mid-tier issue with the U.S. public for the past three years."
Furthermore, immigration "was not a key issue in the presidential election," and the issue "was a low priority in the election not only for the public as a whole but Latinos as well."
The writer, Scott Keeter, Pew's Director of Survey Research, further observed that,
"Both before and after the election, Latinos surveyed by the Pew Hispanic Center rated immigration as significantly less important than issues such as jobs and education. In December, just 31% said it was an `extremely important' issue for the new president to deal with."
Given this lack of push from Latinos and the public at large, the broken status quo continues on the border and in our interior. New border walls go up. Harsher state laws aimed at Hispanics are passed. Widespread discrimination continues unabated. The suffering of those chewed up by our immigration system becomes the basis for the profits of others. Injustice stubbornly persists.
"Abroad, America's greatest source of strength has always been our ideals," Obama observed at one point. "The same is true at home. We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we're all created equal; that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else."
A nice sentiment, but such platitudes mean little without the will to address what remains the number one human rights problem in the United States -- the plight of the undocumented.
Why should Obama bother? What's in it for his administration to do the right thing when even among Latinos, the issue of immigration lags behind heath care, the economy, the environment, etc.?
I refer Obama supporters to the following passage of B-Rock's speech:
I campaigned on the promise of change -- change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change -- or that I can deliver it.
But remember this -- I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is.
Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.
I have some hope Obama may stay true to these words in regard to the undocumented. But without incessant pressure from those he percieves as his allies, I suspect Obama -- like Presidents before him -- will simply cop out .