Chicago's Latinos get an earful on Rahm Emanuel's immigration record

Latino voters, likely to be a key bloc in the Chicago mayor's race, get conflicting reports from candidate Rahm Emanuel and his rivals concerning his record on immigration policy.

By , Staff writer

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    Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel shakes hands after a speech earlier this month. Emanuel is under fire from critics for not doing enough to help immigrants while serving as President Obama's chief of staff.
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Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel is taking some heat over US immigration policy, with critics and election rivals saying he did not do enough while serving in Washington to push for reforms that would help certain subsets of illegal immigrants.

Specifically, his rivals in the race to replace longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley say Mr. Emanuel should have done more to push for legislation that would stop deportations of illegal workers whose children are US citizens, on grounds of keeping families together. They also speculate that Emanuel, in his former position as White House chief of staff, could have helped to gain Senate passage of the DREAM Act, a bill aimed at helping young people who were brought to the US as children a pathway to American citizenship. It fell two votes short last month (by which time Emanuel had left the White House).

The backdrop in this mayoral race is the rising clout of Chicago's Hispanic voters. Among the major mayoral candidates, two are Hispanic. The conventional political wisdom is that, in splitting their community, neither will win, but many analysts expect the Latino vote could be kingmaker in the likely event of a two-person run-off contest after the Feb. 22 election.

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On the day before his immigration critics spoke out, Emanuel had announced his plan to launch a local version of the DREAM Act, which would make undocumented students between the ages of 12 and 25 eligible for low-interest college loans.

“Just because Congress has yet to pass the DREAM Act doesn't mean we will wait for progress in Chicago,” he said in a statement.

The next day, he came under fire from US Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, a national immigration rights advocate who is endorsing Gery Chico for mayor. Mr. Gutierrez charged that back in 2005, when Emanuel was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he recommended that moderate House Democrats facing close races the next year go ahead and vote for a tough immigration bill – one that was unpopular with much of the Latino community. Sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, the legislation called for construction of more border fence and gave local law-enforcement officials greater incentive to check immigration status of offenders and to turn them over to federal authorities. The House approved the bill and, though it stalled in the Senate, the legislation fanned an already-hot immigration debate and prompted pro-immigrant protests across the US.

Stumping for Mr. Chico on Friday at a candidate forum hosted by the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Representative Gutierrez said, “the DREAM kid needed something [Emanuel] could have afforded him – somebody who stood up for them and said no to Sensenbrenner … we could have defeated the Sensenbrenner bill.”

Also at the forum, Claudio Holzer, a Roman Catholic priest who represented a local woman whose deportation in 2005 was met with massive protests from Chicago’s Hispanic community, criticized Emanuel for not intervening on her behalf. “Rahm Emanuel didn’t move one finger for her,” said Father Holzer.

Earlier that day, at a debate sponsored by the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Emanuel defended his immigration record, saying he supported the DREAM Act and that, while in the White House, he was responsible for pulling “a bipartisan meeting together with Democrats and Republicans in the House to say, ‘How do we make progress?' ”

Immigration reform is a hot topic in Chicago, where the Hispanic population has jumped 3 percentage points between 2000 and 2009 to make up one-quarter of total residents, according to the US Census Bureau. On Thursday, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution urging President Obama to use his executive powers to stop deportations of undocumented workers if it separates them from their families.

Hispanics represent 15 percent of Chicago’s 1.5 million registered voters, according to city election officials. With their clout at the ballot box rising, they are being avidly courted by major candidates ahead of the mayoral election.

Emanuel's immigration reform credentials have been discredited by several candidates, among them Mr. Chico, a former Chicago schools president and chief of staff to Mayor Daley; former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun; and Miguel del Valle, the city’s clerk and a former state senator.

Chico is Mexican-American and emphasizes his neighborhood roots on the Southwest Side, which is predominantly Latino. Mr. del Valle has stressed his life story as a child immigrant from Puerto Rico who became Illinois’s first Hispanic state senator in 1987. With two Hispanic candidates to choose from, the Latino vote is expected to be divided – some would say diluted. Neither candidate gives any indication of dropping out to try to solidify the Hispanic vote and lift the chances that a Hispanic might win the mayor's seat.

Hispanic voters are largely undecided, according to a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll conducted in December. Thirty-six percent of Hispanics polled did not declare support for a single candidate. Emanuel was the top choice among those who did, with 27 percent. Del Valle was next with 14 percent, and Chico had 12 percent.

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