Yesterday the National Council of La Raza issued a statement expressing approval of a meeting between President Obama and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which NCLR president Janet Murguía called “a step in the right direction toward immigration reform.” The group's previous statement, issued Monday, was a completely different story, however. Murguía then “expressed profound disappointment” that the White House had apparently dropped Thomas Saenz from consideration for heading the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Instead, the post went to Thomas Perez, a Maryland official and first-generation Dominican American.
Saenz, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's chief legal advisor and ethics czar, is a former Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund vice president and was widely seen as an immigrant-rights advocate. His removal from the short list is being viewed as a sign the Obama administration might be shying away from a fight with conservative Senators. Today's L.A. Times carries a report that Saenz could be in line for another position in the Obama administration — one presumably that comes with a lower profile.
Since his election, Obama has made a number of decisions that have
mystified — if not mortified — his liberal base. There was not only
a center-right preacher to replace Jeremiah Wright as his spiritual
advisor; his plans to expand military operations in Afghanistan and
refusal to give up “rendition” as a counter-terrorism tool. La Raza and
others in the immigration-rights wars clearly worry that immigration
reform, which went from a top-of-the-fold story to forgotten issue
within two years, is something Obama will be willing to sacrifice in
order to move forward other parts of his domestic agenda, which is
headlined by health-care reform and braking the economy's freefall.
Obama nominated Saenz, one possible point of contention in confirmation
hearings might have been the latter's uncompromising opposition on
behalf of MALDEF to then-California Gray Davis' proposal to mediate an
end to the state's appeal of the anti-undocumented alien law passed as
Proposition 187. In this he was joined by Villaraigosa, then the
Assembly Speaker. When Saenz was also at MALDEF he had threatened to
file a lawsuit restoring then-L.A. school superintendent Ruben
Zacarias' authority over district staff, which had been stripped by
school board. Later, as Villaraigosa's legal advisor, he had signed off
on the appointment of businessman Bill Burke to both a DWP commission
while at the same time serving as chairman of the South
Coast Air Quality Management District's board of directors — even
though Burkre was married to a county supervisor and had been hit by
serious ethics fines when operating the L.A. Marathon.
none of this rises above the level of provincial politicking, causing
continued speculation about why the White House dumped Saenz's
nomination after it had seemed on the verge of announcing it. Perhaps,
in the end, Obama figured the potentially volatile mix of California
identity politics with the potential revival of acrimony over
immigration reform was not worth spending political capital now needed