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Hispanics to Press New President on Immigration, No Matter the Victor

By Karen Branch-Brioso

If Hispanic voters turn out in the numbers predicted in next Tuesday’s presidential election, the winner may be pressured into tackling the politically prickly issue of immigration reform in his first year in office whether he wants to or not, an immigrant advocate predicted Wednesday.

“Many of us are predicting the impact of the Latino vote will be unprecedented,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which is pushing for federally sponsored immigration reform for an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The numbers in which they turnout on Election Day “will show that Latinos generally and Latino immigrants, specifically, as well as other immigrant communities, want respect, not to be demonized and will demand reform. I suspect that we may even see a spirited legislative battle beginning in the fall of 2009,” Sharry said.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain have both backed comprehensive immigration reform and say they will address the issue within the first year of their presidencies.

Both candidates have also supported the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (also known as the DREAM Act), which would allow many undocumented high school students who have lived in the United States since childhood a path to legal permanent residency. The legislation, which is limited to students who want to go to college or serve in the U.S. military upon graduation, hasn’t gained traction in Congress.

On the same day Sharry and other immigration advocates laid out projections and predictions during a telephone conference Wednesday afternoon, a New York Times story said that political rifts over immigration as well as more pressing issues — the economy and the Iraq war — are making a first-year approach to immigration unlikely.

“While The New York Times story today suggests it’s not going to be a 100-day issue, I suspect it will be more like a 101-day issue early in the first term,” Sharry said.

He pointed to a number of reports and projections on the Hispanic vote: the National Association of Latino Elected Officials estimates that 9.2 million Hispanics will cast their ballots in Tuesday’s election, compared to 7.6 million in 2004.

He noted that record numbers of naturalization applications — 1.4 million last year — have boosted the number of immigrants eligible to vote this year.

Cecilia Muñoz, Senior Vice President of the Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza, said that if Congress and the new president fail to push for comprehensive immigration reform then the issue of millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States will continue to crop up in less desirable forms.

“If you look at the domestic policy debates that have gone through the Congress, there’s been some kind of immigration battle on every single one of them,” Muñoz said, citing recent legislation on housing, education, the foreclosure crisis, the economic stimulus package and the reauthorization of the State Child Health Insurance Program — all of which included a debate to deny benefits to undocumented immigrants.

“It’s going to become a fuel for what is usually a pretty ugly and not particularly constructive debate … As long as the immigration issue is hanging out there, it’s going to infiltrate the public policy debate — and not in a particularly constructive way.”

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