Obama and the vexed issue of immigration
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
WASHINGTON, May 6 (Reuters) — It was a pledge that helped Barack Obama win the presidency. “I cannot guarantee that it is going to be in the first 100 days. But what I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting.”
That was on May 28, 2008, and it went down well with the largest and fastest growing minority in the United States, Americans of Latin American descent. Of the around 10 million Latinos who went to the polls in November 2008, more than two thirds voted for Obama. For many of them, he has been a disappointment. Once in office, he put immigration on the back burner. He did not push the issue when Democrats had solid majorities in both houses of Congress.
Instead, in the first two years of the Obama presidency, around 1,100 illegal immigrants were deported every day, on average, a pace without precedent. According to the Department of Homeland Security, deportations totaled 387,790 in 2009 and 392,000 in 2010. These are not figures that have endeared Obama to immigrant communities.
Which is why a parade of prominent Latinos, from celebrities (actress Eva Longoria, music producer Emilio Estefan, Maria Elena Salinas of Univision) to business leaders, were invited to meetings at the White House in April and May where Obama talked about immigration and promised renewed efforts to push for Congressional action on immigration reform.
In addition, the White House launched a new website devoted to “President Obama and the Hispanic Community.” Hispanic members of the administration set up a series of conference calls with community leaders to reassure them that Latinos are “an integral part” of Obama’s vision to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”
It’s a hearts-and-minds campaign driven by numbers — census figures released in March showed the Hispanic population at 50.5 million, 12 million of whom are expected to vote in 2012, two million more than in 2008. Another reason for the courtship: reminders that Obama’s 2008 campaign promise has not been forgotten. In the words of Luis Gutierrez, a Democratic congressman from Obama’s home state, “there was a compact. You came to us and you said. ‘elect me president and I will be champion for immigration reform.'”
That stood for a package that would have provided better control of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, a new visa system, and a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, most of them Mexicans, who are already in the country. Prospects for that kind of reform are virtually zero – its Republican opponents insist that before any other changes, the border must be “secure.” They mean entry-proof, something no border ever has been.
FIXED FRONTS, UNCHANGING ARGUMENTS
The arguments on both sides have not changed since George W. Bush tried to fix the country’s dysfunctional immigration system in his second term in office. His attempt died in the Senate in June 2007 because he could not convince legislators in his own Republican party that illegal immigrants in the country should have the possibility to fix their status.
Last December, a much narrower bill fell five votes short of the 60 votes it needed for passage in the Senate. The DREAM Act (short for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) would have given legal status to hundreds of thousands of students who were brought to the U.S. by parents who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. Many of those the DREAM ACT would have covered have lived almost their entire lives in the country.
Allowing them to stay, in the eyes of immigration hardliners, would be tantamount to amnesty. That is the argument that killed Bush’s reform plan, too.
The word amnesty tends to end rational debate but in April, 22 Democratic Senators wrote a letter to Obama suggesting that he, as “the nation’s chief law enforcement officer”, could exercise his executive powers to suspend deportations and allow the youths to stay. Obama shrugged off the idea. He may come to regret that.
For Latinos to affect the president’s chances of winning a second term, they don’t have to switch allegiance to the Republican party. It’s enough for a substantial number to just sit out the vote. If that happened, his electoral chances would be diminished.
So, Latin leaders can expect more invitations to the White House and more reassuring words. Deeds are another matter.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)