PORTLAND – President Obama’s top priority for comprehensive immigration legislation should be central in this year’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday celebrations.
This is my take as a former public affairs business executive who has lived, studied and engaged in the politics of immigration and civil rights.
Like President Lyndon Johnson’s change from supporting segregationism to — with the Rev. King — supporting integrationism, ending Southern apartheid during the 1960s, Obama changed from supporting immigrant deportation to temporarily legalizing the DREAM Act.
This legalizes millions of young, mostly Latino, undocumented immigrants. It elevated Latino support for his re-election and connected Obama with the over 60 percent of Americans who favor citizenship for 11 million immigrants locked in federal illegality.
Obama’s decision was a flash point in this American demographic dilemma. If he is successful in removing the illegal stigma affecting immigration, this nation’s 47 million Latinos may find in Barack Obama their first Latino president.
Obama is product of a global African immigration. This is evident in my adopted demographic-deficient Maine. How else does one explain the Republican “birther” base animus over his American citizenship? Obama’s Latino presidential symbolism would be bolder than Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison’s kindred characterization of President Clinton as our first black president.
Succeeding where President George W. Bush failed in 2006 to end illegal immigration as we know it, Obama will further the Rev. King’s dream for a character content-comparable to President Johnson’s civil rights assault on legal segregation. The Johnson — not Lincoln — presidency is the true inspiration for a game-changing integration policy affecting American immigration
Immigration reform will resurrect the economic inequity the Rev. King addressed the night his life ended. His legislative work with President Johnson fomented the civil rights cultural sea change that was crucial to Obama’s re-election. And Latino activism’s end game encompasses reversing an economic segregation that has displaced black-white segregation.
Modeled after the King-Johnson success, a Latino activists-Obama endeavor could legislatively expand a growing, demographically multicultural, political center akin to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal integration of European immigration. It will alter the lost Democratic Party majority that emanated from the Southern Democratic-to-Republican transformation that Johnson predicted in supporting the Rev. King and the civil rights movement.
The key difference is that Latinos represent a national — not Southern regional — link to possible partisan realignment. Every month for the next two decades, 50,000 Latinos will become 18-year-old potential voters.
Demographics like that are key to expanded equitable access and economic growth. It’s why the Latino civil rights movement will impact Maine’s future, where population growth is driven mostly by African immigration.
Mexican immigration can become the national avatar for integrating non-Latino immigrants with differing skills and status. The destiny of that demography began in my native California.
Like Mitt Romney, moderate Republican Gov. Pete Wilson Etch A Sketched his successful 1994 gubernatorial re-election campaign, using race-laden fears to pass a state initiative excluding public services to mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Initially aimed at Vietnamese refugees, this Wilson switch contrasted with then-Texas Gov. Bush’s pro-immigrant efforts and expanded with successful initiatives against affirmative action and bilingual education. I warned my California Republican friends that such anti-diversity animosity would be generationally destructive. Today, Democrats hold all California elective statewide offices and control two-thirds of its state legislature and 40 of that state’s 55 congressional seats.
Bush’s most significant domestic presidential insight equated immigration reform with an expanded Republican Party. Embracing America’s growing demographic center now requires that the party go beyond “outreach” or showcasing tea party Republicans of color.
Conservative insiders know that Bush’s proposal could have prevented Obama’s re-election. As in the past, Republicans will learn that legalizing undocumented immigrants is in keeping with our global leadership as a nation of immigrants.
The Rev. King opened civil rights doors for activists like Cesar Chavez. Central to America’s demographic change, Latinos were moved by 2008 presidential candidate Obama’s symbolic “Si, se puede” — “Yes, we can” — embrace of Chavez’s words. It symbolized a pro-immigrant browning of America and is why historian Douglas Brinkley sees Chavez as a sustaining national future figure.
In memory of King’s legacy, with “Si, se puede” spiritedness, let’s make Obama the first figurative Latino president through immigration policy changes supporting this nation’s demographic future. With Obama’s success, Bush’s hope for demographic integration will become a realized dream and new American reality.
Ralph C. Carmona of Portland is a University of California Regent Emeritus, executive director of the Maine Global Institute and an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College.