When President Obama hosted a meeting on April 19 with prominent stakeholders in the immigration debate, he hoped to kick start a national dialogue about how to push comprehensive immigration reform forward. The timing was symbolic—the Arizona state legislature voted one year ago to take immigration enforcement into its own hands, butting heads with the Obama administration and polarizing the immigration debate. Obama laid out his own four-point plan that includes ramping up border security; holding businesses that contract undocumented workers accountable; establishing a pathway to citizenship in which undocumented immigrants would admit they broke the law, pay a fine, and go to the back of the line; and reforming the current legal immigration system to make it more efficient and focus on recruiting skilled and entrepreneurial foreigners. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to achieve a system that is fair, is equitable, is an economic engine for America that helps the people who are already here get acculturated, and make sure that our laws aren’t being broken but we’re still true to our traditions,” Obama said in a Facebook-hosted, town-hall meeting on April 20.
Obama’s support for immigration reform serves as something of a “thank you” to Latino constituents who support both Obama and the Democratic Party in large numbers. Some 67 percent of the country’s 10 million Hispanic voters cast their ballots for Obama in the 2008 presidential elections. The record-level support—a 14 percent jump from what John Kerry received in the 2004 election—boosted Obama’s standing in the hard-won states of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Florida. Hispanic support for the Democratic Party remained strong in the midterms, with 60 percent voting for Democratic candidates versus 38 percent for the Republicans, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Hispanic support for Obama does not come unconditionally, however, as Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) recently reminded the president. Gutierrez went on a tour this month to raise support for immigration reform and said he wanted to see more action from the president on immigration reform before deciding if he would support his candidacy. Gutierrez took Obama to task for deporting more people than any U.S. president, with nearly 393,000 deportations in 2009 (the last year for which official figures are available). The expansion of Secure Communities, a program requiring local police to share fingerprints of those they apprehend with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), also angers many Hispanic leaders. Data recently released by ICE show that almost half of those pulled into deportation proceedings through Secure Communities either committed misdemeanors or no crime at all, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Obama also reiterated his support of the DREAM Act in recent days, a reform that would allow most undocumented youths without criminal records to attend university, join the military, and apply for citizenship. But reform advocates point out that the president has the power to halt deportations of youth without waiting for Congress. Twenty-two senators wrote Obama an open letter on April 13 asking him to use executive authority to create a system to defer deportation for those who would qualify for the DREAM Act if it were law.
Pressure notwithstanding, Obama said repeatedly last week that he would not fight for immigration reform alone. He expects Congress to lead the way, but comprehensive immigration reform will not be easy for Obama to sell this year. Democrats are not united behind immigration reform and some Republicans who entered Congress after midterms gained votes by taking tough stances against illegal immigration and calling for increased border enforcement. The polarization stemming from Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 1070, makes cobbling together a bipartisan coalition more difficult. Congress has not been able to pass the DREAM Act. But when the DREAM Act failed in the Senate last year, only three Republican voted for it, compared to the 22 who supported the bipartisan 2006 immigration reform introduced by John McCain (R-AZ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) that included the DREAM Act.
At the same time, some Republicans hope to take advantage of the growing Hispanic vote. Politico reports that Newt Gingrich, for example, has begun learning Spanish and reaching out to the Hispanic community. Though he remains opposed to granting a pathway to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, he favors allowing the undocumented to apply for residency. “We are not going to deport 11 million people,” Gingrich said at a forum with Latino leaders in December. “There has to be some zone between deportation and amnesty.”