LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After months on the sidelines, Hispanics who voted for Barack Obama in record numbers may put immigration reform back on the agenda once he becomes U.S. president in January.
Some 12 million mostly Hispanic migrants live and work in the United States illegally, and the issue of what to do with them divides Americans.
As a senator, the Democrat Obama backed a bipartisan bill last year supported by his Republican rival Sen. John McCain that sought a path out of the shadows for some of them. Republicans defeated the bill amid criticism that it amounted to “amnesty.”
Obama supports a more comprehensive immigration reform which includes a pledge to tighten border security and impose tougher penalties for employers hiring illegal immigrants.
Hispanics who are U.S. citizens, 67 percent of whom voted for Obama on November 4, rate the economy and the war in Iraq as more important issues, but activists and analysts say many also rank immigration as a top issue and they will likely expect action.
“We voted for a person who we believed understood the importance of immigrants to this country,” said Angelica Salas, the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
“While it isn’t a strict quid pro quo, there is expectation that he will deliver on these promises,” she added.
Immigration was not an issue during the campaign as both Obama and McCain sought to tread a fine line between courting Hispanic voters, while not alienating opponents of comprehensive immigration reform.
Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the country, accounting for about 9 percent of the U.S. electorate. That’s important to Democrats eager to flex their muscle in the White House and Congress.
Democrats will have their biggest majority in years when the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives reconvene in January.
“The question for Democrats as they think about tackling immigration reform is, are they going to take (Hispanic support) for granted or are they going to feel they need to do something in the shorter term in order to solidify it?” said Tamar Jacoby, the CEO of ImmigrationWorksUSA, a national employers’ coalition incorporated earlier this year.
Divisions run deep. Hard-liners decry illegal immigrants as a drain on resources and want them rounded up and returned to their countries of origin. Obama and vice president-elect Joe Biden would have them pay a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become U.S. citizens.
Analysts say Obama would be ill-advised to reopen the divisive fight over immigration at a time when the struggling U.S. economy is shedding around 200,000 jobs a month.
“Trying to argue that we need to legalize people who are illegally in the country when the country is losing jobs at one of the fastest rates in the past 20 years is a really tough sell,” said Steven Camarota, research director at the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies think-tank.
Opinion makers say other courses of action are open to Obama to keep his promises on immigration reform and reassure Latino voters.
“There are steps the new president can take to show Latino voters he means to take on the issue,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial.
These include stopping workplace raids that have rounded up thousands of mostly Hispanic employees at factories in Iowa and Mississippi, among other states, and building cross-party support for the so-called Dream Act, allowing high-achieving, undocumented high-school students to seek permanent residency, the newspaper said.
“However he does it, he must deliver on their dream of change,” the editorial concluded.
Editing by Howard Goller