Partisanship will hound Obama's agenda

If President Obama genuinely believed that he could tamp down the hyper-partisanship that has come to dominate American politics, he had quite the education over the summer. He now knows better. Talk show hosts, well-paid lobbyists and political hacks managed to ignite a vicious culture war over the generally dull and complex subject of health care, of all things. If they could do that, then the more familiar fights can only get bloodier.

So Obama probably isn't looking forward to a return to immigration reform, which, when last discussed, revealed an ugly resentment of "the other" that our melting-pot nation hasn't outgrown. But return he must. Like health care and climate change, immigration reform is an area where solutions have been put off for too long.

Last month, Obama pledged to push for the introduction of a bill implementing comprehensive immigration reform before the year is out, while cautioning that the overhaul won't be easy. Speaking at a presidential summit in Mexico, he said, "Am I going to be able to snap my fingers and get this done? No ... There are going to be demagogues out there who try to suggest that any form of pathway for legalization for those who are already in the United States is unacceptable," according to The New York Times.

On Wednesday night, Obama got a taste of the extremism that will greet immigration reform from U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who yelled out, "You lie!" when the president noted that his health reform initiative will not cover illegal immigrants. That was a nadir in even our crass culture, and Wilson later apologized for the outburst.

But the notion that health care reform would extend benefits to undocumented workers had been making the rounds during the summer's town hall meetings, a falsehood ginned up not just by talk show hosts but also by a paranoid suspicion of illegal workers. (For the record, there is no health care bill in Congress that would extend health insurance or other health care related benefits to illegal workers. Their health care status would not change: They are currently eligible for emergency room treatment, but they are not eligible for Medicaid, Medicare or the Children's Health Insurance Program.)

The resentment and the suspicion of illegal immigrants lingers though illegal border-crossings have dropped off since the recession. Many undocumented workers went back home when they could no longer find work.

But many are still here, stuck in the shadows, struggling to hold onto jobs with employers who can get away with paying them less and working them harder. Countless workers from all over — Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Kenya, India, Ireland — have lived here illegally for years, paying taxes, buying homes, having children and making their lives here, all the while stuck in a netherworld that leaves them open to exploitation.

As President George W. Bush understood, that doesn't make sense. Though some countries — Saudi Arabia comes to mind — blatantly exploit their immigrant workers, that's not who we are as a country. Since we're not going to round up all undocumented workers and send them home, we need to end a system that winks at their second-class status.

This may be Obama's most difficult battle yet. Given that Bush couldn't get it done, imagine the hysteria that will greet the proposal when it comes from a president named Barack Hussein Obama. Immigration reform fuels the fears of those who have not come to terms with the nation's rapid social transformation, from the election of a black president to gay marriage to women in combat.

Am I suggesting that all those who oppose immigration reform are racists? Absolutely not. But it is the sort of cultural issue that will provoke a frenzy from the fringe — the birthers, the tea partiers, the Obama-is-the-anti-Christ crowd.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at

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