Bush fumbles, Obama recovers

President Bush does not admit mistakes very often, so it’s worth paying attention when he does. And as he leaves office, Bush has been emphasizing two critical missteps on the subject of immigration.

Mistake one, he told his final news conference, was not using the political capital he earned during the 2004 re-election campaign to push immediately for immigration reform. Instead, he focused on a futile effort to rework Social Society, and by the time he got to immigration in 2007, he had squandered his capital and lost his influence.

Mistake two was the cynical decision by conservative Republicans to oppose immigration reform as a way of energizing their base supporters. The result was to drive Hispanic voters straight into the waiting arms of the Democrats. As the president noted, “The outcome of ... the debate was that some people said, well, Republicans don’t like immigrants. Now that may be fair or unfair, but that’s ... the image that came out.”

Bush has long understood the rising importance of Hispanic voters and won 44 percent of them against John Kerry in 2004. But after the immigration debacle, John McCain – a strong sponsor of reform – slumped to 31 percent. Even more threatening to the GOP: McCain attracted only 19 percent of Hispanics under 30.

There’s a clear lesson here. Barack Obama should place immigration high on his agenda during his first year in office. It makes sense morally and economically, but also politically. White voters dropped from 77 percent of the electorate in 2004 (and 87 percent in 1992) to 74 percent in 2008, and that trend is only going to accelerate. Democrats lost seven of 10 presidential elections before Obama’s victory, and one key to solidifying their new advantage is maximizing their share of the Hispanic vote.

Of course, the economic crisis has to be Obama’s primary focus. And a time of soaring unemployment is not the best moment to talk about adding newcomers to the workforce. Still, the new president, the son of a foreigner himself, will have several chances to enhance the lives of immigrants, legal and illegal, and he should seize them.

The first opportunity will be expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which provides coverage for poor children and pregnant women. Congress is now deciding whether to reverse a 1996 law that bars legal immigrants from qualifying for those benefits during their first five years in this country.

This is a smart and humane idea that would pay for itself. Early immunization and prenatal care keeps moms and their kids out of expensive emergency rooms and holds down health costs. The House bill lifts the ban, but powerful senators are resisting, and Obama should make the repeal an early test of his influence.

As Jennifer Ng’andu, a health specialist at the Hispanic group La Raza, told the New York Times: “Children should not be forced to wait five years for healthcare. Five years is a lifetime to a child.”

A second chance for Obama will be canceling the Bush administration’s campaign to raid workplaces and deport undocumented workers. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff boasts about ejecting 350,000 illegals, but in many cases all he’s done is tear hardworking taxpaying families apart. And since the deportees account for only about 3 percent of the 12 million illegals already here, he’s done almost nothing to solve the larger problem.

Obama’s biggest decision on immigration will be whether to push for a comprehensive reform package that includes a way for undocumented families to legalize their status. We’d like to see him do that. He should heed Bush’s warning and spend his capital early, before it dissipates. As Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said recently: “Immigrants must be brought out of the shadows so that they can fully contribute to our nation’s economic and social well-being.”

We are also pragmatists. Comprehensive reform might have to wait until the economy improves. But smaller measures would be easier to swallow this year, and one good example is called DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act). Under this proposal, young people who came here illegally as children could acquire permanent residency by earning a two-year college degree or serving two years in the military.

Obama likes to say that he’ll listen to Republicans if they have good ideas. Well, his predecessor has given him one: Improve the lot of immigrants, and improve the prospects of his party in the bargain.

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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