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Mihalopoulos: Emanuel switch on immigration — evolution or hipocresía?

CHICAGO IL - JANUARY 31:  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as Police Superintendant Garry McCarthy discusses plan reassign 200

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 31: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as Police Superintendant Garry McCarthy discusses a plan to reassign 200 police officers from administrative duties back to patrol duties during a press conference on January 31, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago has been faced with a rising murder rate largely attributed to an increase in gang related violence. Last year the city had more than 500 murders. The city has had more than 40 murders in January 2013, surpassing the total for January 2012. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Updated: July 26, 2014 6:40AM

For Latino politicians and activists who long saw Rahm Emanuel as an obstacle to immigration reform, it’s easy to describe the mayor’s relatively recent switch to their side as an evolution.

But on Chicago’s Spanish-language call-in shows — which reflect Latino public opinion as accurately as any poll or community group — a different word was used repeatedly over the airwaves in the past few days.

You don’t need to speak español to understand what hipocresía means.

Callers on WDNZ-750 AM’s Sin Censura (“Uncensored”) radio program said they were appalled to learn last week that Emanuel once advised then-President Bill Clinton that “halfway through your term you want to claim a number of industries free of illegal immigrants” and also called for “record deportations of criminal aliens.”

The suggestions were in memos Emanuel sent to his boss at the time in the White House, in the mid-1990s. Sun-Times reporter Frank Main scoured the trove of Clinton-era files that became public recently — 12 years after Clinton left office — and three years after Emanuel’s return to Chicago to run for mayor apparently prompted him to soften his views on immigration.

A caller to the Sin Censura radio show named Silvano said the memos show Emanuel doesn’t deserve the support of the fast-growing Latino community.

“We should make him pay the price . . . and vote him out of office,” Silvano told the show’s pugnacious host, Vicente Serrano, on Monday morning. “This is great hypocrisy by him and other politicians. Whenever they need us, they are pro-immigrant, but whenever we need them, they kick us in the butt. We have to remember this and make him pay the price.”

Serrano says the memos suggest the mayor “does whatever suits him at the moment.”

In his 2011 mayoral run, Emanuel dodged questions about his actions on immigration when he was President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff. Accused of blocking attempts to achieve reforms Obama had promised, Emanuel coyly said he would not disclose what he had suggested to the president.

“What can we expect to see in the memos of the Obama administration [many] years from now?” Serrano says.

Ald. Ricardo Munoz [22nd] says Emanuel’s old stands on immigration have “the potential to be a fatal flaw for his standing among Latinos.”

That’s a possibility not lost on the politically savvy mayor. Before the Sun-Times detailed the memos in a front-page story Friday by Main and City Hall reporter Fran Spielman, Emanuel’s office tried to elicit public backing from at least one prominent immigration reform activist.

Lawrence Benito, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the mayor’s aides reached out to him as the Sun-Times prepared to publish its story and asked him to speak on Emanuel’s behalf.

“I said I didn’t have a problem talking to the press, but I wasn’t going to sugarcoat things either,” Benito told me when I called him this week.

The reality, he says, is that Emanuel has been an ally of immigrants as mayor but still has work to do to convince many Latinos that he deserves their support.

“Definitely, we’ve had our differences with Mr. Emanuel,” Benito says. “But in politics, what’s the saying — no permanent friends, no permanent enemies?”

Benito and others laud the mayor for starting an Office of New Americans and holding the first citizenship ceremony at City Hall. Activists also say he was helpful in winning the right for undocumented immigrants to get temporary driver’s licenses last year.

“Like a lot of political leaders in American society, his position has clearly evolved in the past 20 years,” says Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum.

The mayor’s spokeswoman said last week that he consistently has supported finding “a way to put 12 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.” But his past statements on the subject continue to echo.

“When you call immigration the third rail of politics, there will be some in the community who will never forget that,” Benito says. “I’m sure he is trying to figure out how to shore up constituencies, and this [disclosure of Clinton White House memos] is not helpful.”

Emanuel might need Clinton-esque powers of persuasion to prove that his conversion on the road to the mayor’s office represents a sincere and final shift.


Twitter: @dmihalopoulos

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