A call to do the right thing

Published 11:00 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The John F. Kennedy Center is hosting a musical this month titled “First You Dream.” When I noticed the ad, I thought about President Obama’s initiative through the Department of Homeland Security to allow undocumented immigrant youth to continue school or work without fear of deportation. Now, those young people can dream, too.

That’s the way this country started: with dreams. We’ve been a nation of immigrants who first dreamed of better lives. Even before the Statue of Liberty welcomed “the huddled masses yearning to be free,” we welcomed the hardworking and the hopeful.

I’m a Democrat, but I’m first and foremost a citizen. And it’s as a citizen that I’m grateful we have a president who is not afraid to take risks — even when failure (or success!) could cost his re-election. He went after Osama bin Laden when others said they wouldn’t. He passed the first and only national health care legislation — something many other presidents have advocated, but which caused extraordinary bitterness among congressional Republicans. He voiced his personal support for marriage equality. And when Congress refused to pass the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant children, he ordered immigration officials to stop deporting them until Congress did move.

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Mitt Romney quickly passed judgment on Obama’s directive, calling it a “ploy.” Romney told CBS’s Bob Schieffer, “Well, as you know, (Obama) was president for the last three and a half years, (but) did nothing on immigration.” Unfortunately, this statement ignores a lot of bipartisan progress on immigration reform that has taken place during Obama’s term.

Obama promoted and campaigned for the DREAM Act in 2008. While the Democrats were still in control of Congress, Obama secured the House passage of the DREAM Act by 216 to 198 votes. Eight Republicans voted for its passage.

However, the Dream Act stalled in the Senate when Republicans supporters of similar legislation flip-flopped and voted to prevent the Dream Act from coming to a vote. Those flipping included Senators John McCain, Jon Kyl, Orrin Hatch, Sam Brownback and Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Though 55 senators voted in favor of passage, it fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the roadblock.

Republicans who backtracked on their support for immigrant youth said they were opposed to it until the border was secure. Now, thanks to President Obama, the border is increasingly secure. He and Congress have cooperated to increase border security. New illegal immigration has dropped to a trickle. Yet, Republican opposition to the DREAM Act remains.

Prior to the Obama administration’s decision, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had discussed introducing a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act, yet the bill has yet to be publicly released. He has blamed the Obama announcement for putting the bill on hold, but it seems more likely that he is having trouble garnering conservative support for the legislation.

Perhaps part of the difficulty in getting Republicans on board with rational immigration reform is that their party’s presidential nominee has made such outlandish statements on the matter. Romney has said he would veto the DREAM Act. He suggested that Arizona’s questionably constitutional immigration law is a “model” for the country and said that his immigration reform plan was to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they would “self-deport.” It seems that Romney now wants to walk back these extreme positions, but the record is there.

This all demonstrates the dilemma that Romney boxed himself into (the same trap the previous nominee, John McCain, fell into). If you try to woo Latino voters with a proposal for just and comprehensive immigration reform, you lose your conservative base. If you make outlandish statements about “self-deportation” during the Republican primary, you find yourself out of step with the rest of the American public, who support the Obama administration’s recent decision by a 2-to-1 margin.

Speaking of Senator McCain, his 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, had this advice for Republicans after the last election: “If the party does not figure out a way to appeal to Latino voters, it will become increasingly difficult, and maybe impossible, to ever again win a national election.”

For President Obama, this is one instance where smart policy was also smart politics. It’s time for Republicans to get on the bus: We need comprehensive immigration reform now. Our country was built by immigrants; it’s time to do right by them all.

(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)