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Rahm Emanuel no friend on immigration

By Ruben Navarrette, Jr., Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette notes Rahm Emanuel may run for Chicago mayor
  • Immigration reformers there may be unimpressed with his past obstruction on issue, he says
  • If Rep. Gutierrez, immigration reform supporter, also decides to run, expect fireworks
  • Navarrette: Emanuel didn't lead on immigration; his boss, the president, also derelict on issue

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator and a regular contributor to CNN.com.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Here's something liberals and conservatives have in common: It may soon be the case that neither camp will have Rahm Emanuel to kick around anymore. Now it's time to give Chicago, Illinois, voters a chance to do some kicking of their own.

We can start with those Chicagoans who support immigration reform and believe that both Congress and the Obama administration should be ashamed for putting off a tough debate for the sake of politics.

These folks might soon have a chance to channel that anger at a Washington insider who those closest to the immigration debate have always seen as one of the main obstacles to reform --Emanuel.

That is, if there is any truth to what various news outlets are reporting this week -- that the White House chief of staff will soon resign and head home to Chicago to run for mayor. If he does, the immigration issue will be waiting to greet him.

That will be especially true if Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, perhaps the most outspoken supporter of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, also jumps into the mayor's race. This is a real possibility, and, if it happens, we can expect fireworks: Gutierrez has never been shy about blasting Emanuel over immigration reform.

It's great poetry. When it comes to what is perhaps the most divisive issue that Americans have confronted since slavery, Emanuel should have learned by now that you can run but you can't hide. He has been on the run from immigration reform since the debate resurfaced in 2005 with the introduction of the McCain-Kennedy comprehensive reform bill.

Emanuel spent that year whipping up support among Democrats for the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, a terribly unimaginative enforcement-only bill proposed by then-House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin.

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Among other things, the bill made unauthorized presence in the United States a felony and threatened to punish, as accomplices, churches and other charities that offer assistance to illegal immigrants. The measure passed the House, but the Senate never acted on it.

In 2006, when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, Emanuel became House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's top lieutenant. There again, he worked hard to keep the immigration issue off the Democratic agenda because he feared it could put him and his colleagues in a tough spot. According to The Washington Post, Emanuel decided that the issue was a loser for Democrats and so he tried to bury it.

Emanuel failed the leadership test, even if he was correct in his political analysis. The issue divided two loyal Democratic constituencies: Latinos, who wanted reform, and organized labor, which didn't want reform if it meant supporting demands from the business community for guest workers. Unions claimed guest workers undermined U.S. workers.

It left liberal Democrats vulnerable, because immigration is one of those issues where some of their liberal constituents sound more like conservatives. It also threatened "blue dog" Democrats representing conservative districts, several of whom Emanuel had personally recruited to run for Congress in the first place.

It was no surprise when the Chicago Democrat declared immigration the new "third rail" in politics (you touch it, you die) and pushed the issue so far to the back burner that it nearly fell off the stove. Capitol Hill newspapers reported shouting matches between Emanuel and members of the Democratic-controlled Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who failed to get leaders of their party to tackle the issue.

Emanuel continued ducking the immigration issue when he became President Obama's chief of staff in early 2009, and it might be that he has helped Obama do the same thing. Despite repeated promises that he intends to achieve comprehensive immigration reform (these promises are usually delivered before Latino audiences on Mexican holidays), Obama has been derelict.

While the president was willing to go the mat for health care reform, he obviously doesn't care as much about immigration. And it shows.

In fact, as tempting as it is to blame Emanuel for taking immigration reform off the president's agenda, it might not be totally fair. Some in the immigration reform community naively assume that the only reason they haven't gotten as much as they expected from this administration is because Emanuel has been secretly plotting against their interests.

It's better to believe that than to take a peek behind door No. 2 and accept the hard truth that Obama is the one who betrayed them.

Either way, Rahm Emanuel has a lot of explaining to do to Latinos when he gets back to Chicago about his commitment to the immigration issue -- or lack thereof. They deserve answers, and they should demand them. And if the response doesn't satisfy their concerns, they should take their votes elsewhere.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.