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Immigration reform: If Obama’s re-elected, will it be “Yes, He Can” or “No, He Can’t”?

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – California Congressman Xavier Becerra, an Obama campaign surrogate, is one hundred percent certain that the president will be re-elected. And when that happens, Becerra said yesterday at a forum on the Latino vote and immigration, he will deliver the comprehensive immigration reform bill he promised to pass in 2008.

“It’s not if (immigration reform will happen), it’s when.”

His reasoning: many Republicans are also looking for a solution to the immigration issue – and are tired of being at the mercy of the ultra-conservative, radical wing of their party that rejects all efforts to compromise or negotiate.

At the forum, which was organized by National Journal, Univisión, and ABC, Becerra acknowledged the difficulty Obama will face in passing immigration reform in his second term if the Democrats don’t regain control of both houses of Congress. But even without Democratic majorities, he insisted, the growing number of conservative Republicans ready to find a solution to the issue will create support for a bill.

Becerra’s Democratic colleague Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles and chairman of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), agreed.

“When the Republicans lose this election, they’ll move from the far right, where they are right now on every issue, to the center (of the political spectrum),” Villaraigosa predicted.

The Democratic and Republican party platforms couldn’t be more different on immigration. The former endorses comprehensive immigration reform and urges Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would provide a lasting path to legal status for the millions of undocumented young people temporarily protected by Obama’s deferred action policy; the latter (which goes on about immigration at length) condemns immigration reform and deferred action.

But while it’s true that the difference between the parties in their handling of the immigration issue is immense, it’s no less true that neither has yet passed immigration reform. It’s difficult to ignore the possibility that some Latino voters’ disappointment may diminish Hispanic turnout at the polls.

Of course, the Democrats are paying plenty of attention to these voters. Their convention has featured a constant stream of references to the role of immigrants; to the principle that it doesn’t matter how you look or where you came from, you can work to achieve your dream; and to DREAMers themselves, including one—Benita Veliz—who spoke briefly last night on the Convention floor.

Deferred action for DREAMers is, without a doubt, evidence that the president is willing to take administrative action in the face of Republican obstruction. And despite his unkept promise, Obama still enjoys a level of support in the Latino community similar to what he received in 2008, when 67% of Latino voters chose him over John McCain. But Democrats know that the promise of immigration reform is an I.O.U., and that Latinos are still waiting for them to pay up.

At another event yesterday, Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico, says that he hopes the topic of immigration reform stays on the president’s radar. In fact, he said, “I want to hear ‘immigration reform’ 29 times during his speech” which he will deliver tonight.

Another DREAMer, César Vargas of the DRM Capitol Group, praised the deferred action policy and the decision to give Veliz an opportunity to represent millions of undocumented immigrants on the convention stage. But more importantly, he said—and especially if Obama is re-elected with broad Hispanic support–“we want to see action” at the legislative level on the DREAM Act and immigration reform.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, predicted that if Obama wins and the Latino vote is a factor (both of which he expects to be the case), both parties will try to approach the immigration debate differently. But if Republicans remain unsupportive, Sharry said, Obama might opt for further executive action to benefit other groups of undocumented immigrants.

Deferred action seems to have improved Obama’s reputation among Latinos on immigration—although, as Sharry said, the credit for that policy goes to DREAMers themselves. “It wasn’t a good idea that came from the White House. It was an inevitable idea that came from the grassroots.”

On November 6th, we’ll know for certain whether Obama’s embrace of the inevitable was enough. Without admitting outright that enthusiasm among Hispanic voters remains low, Villaraigosa implicitly acknowledged the challenge: “We have to work hard.”

Maribel Hastings is a Senior Advisor at America’s Voice