SAN DIEGO -- We're only about a month into the Obama presidency and already immigrant-rights activists are getting restless. Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform are more determined than ever to overcome the nativist fears that helped derail their efforts in 2007 and fix a broken system.
It won't be easy. With the economic crisis, some say this is a bad time to give the issue another hearing. The argument against immigration reform goes: Why would Americans want to legalize and throw into the work force millions of people to do jobs that should go to U.S. workers? The reformers have counterarguments: Most illegal immigrants are already in the work force. Adjusting their status would make it harder for employers to play off illegal immigrants against U.S. workers, and force companies to increase wages for everyone.
And where does the Obama administration come down on all this? It's hard to tell. People are confused.
The president has promised to make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority. Just last month, during an appearance on the Spanish-language radio show hosted by Los Angeles-based Eddie "El Piolin" Sotelo, Obama pledged to "begin the process of dealing with the immigration system that's broken" by making it easier for legal immigrants to become citizens. As for comprehensive reform, Obama assured Sotelo that this too was on his agenda.
"It's going to take some time to move that forward," Obama said. "But I'm very committed to making it happen. And we're going to be convening leadership on this issue so that we can start getting that legislation drawn up over the next several months."
Yet just one week later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out the first major worksite raid under the Obama administration. ICE agents swarmed Yamato Engine Specialists, a plant in Bellingham, Wash., and arrested 28 illegal immigrants. A pro-immigrant organization, America's Voice, condemned the raids as being "in stark contrast to the president's vision for common-sense immigration policies."
Testifying recently before Congress, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed that she didn't know about the Bellingham raid beforehand and that she has asked ICE for a review of the operation. But that was as far as Napolitano was willing to go. She didn't disavow the raids. In fact, she appears to support worksite enforcement efforts as long as they focus on employers as well as workers. I bet she will continue the raids but tidy them up by arresting a few employers and making sure anyone apprehended has access to legal counsel.
Amy Kudwa, acting press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, told me in an email that "if the process is corrected, then it is not a question of halting" the raids but rather adhering to priorities. "ICE needs to be focused on criminal aliens and employers first," she said.
That won't be good enough for those on the far left. In fact, some immigration activists who want to voice their opposition to the raids and prod Obama to tackle the immigration issue are planning another round of immigration marches on May 1.
This time, many of the same people who supported Obama in the last election could be condemning him for keeping up the raids and dragging his feet on immigration reform. Of course, because a spattering of Mexican flags never seems to win the hearts and minds of the American people, the marches could backfire. Yet the marchers don't seem anxious to stand down.
Personally, I'm not sure what the conflict is about. One can support both comprehensive immigration reform and worksite raids. One has nothing to do with the other. If employers or workers are breaking the law, it's the job of ICE, a law enforcement agency, to arrest them. What's the other option -- that one should be free to violate federal law with impunity while lawmakers come up with a policy? Besides, even if we had a conditional path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, we would still need enforcement measures such as raids. How else would you deal with those who don't meet the conditions?
Then again, for me, worksite raids don't represent the moral quandary they do for others. For instance, I never saw eye to eye with the lawmaker who, last year, lamented a situation where "communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids -- when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing."
That person was Barack Obama, whose administration has just carried out a raid of its own. No wonder people are confused.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com.