President Obama: Pushing CIR or Just Mending Fences With Latino Voters?

It’s often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; the corollary for sitting Presidents must be something like this: the road to a single-term presidency is paved with unfulfilled campaign promises. One thinks of President George H.W. Bush’s broken pledge not to raise taxes – a pledge broken when supervening fiscal necessities forced the President’s hand. Mr. Obama knows the history, and certainly can do the math; if his inability to deliver a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill alienates enough of his political base, he could find himself writing his memoirs much sooner than he had hoped.

This is a matter of some concern for the President and his advisors, as the 2012 campaign season rattles to life. Last time, Obama rode to victory with the help of Latino voters, a key constituency that has wavered into ambivalence in recent months – and in some cases, into outright anger – at a President who once promised to pass a CIR bill within his first year in office, but thus far has failed to do so, for a variety of legitimate reasons. Not only that, the Obama administration has surpassed even the Bush administration in its drive to deport record numbers of illegal immigrants.

Many of the President’s Latino supporters are fed up, some complaining loudly to virtually anyone who will listen. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Congressman and leading proponent of immigrant-friendly CIR legislation, has been campaigning against President Obama, urging Latino voters to reconsider their support for Obama – even stay home from the polls – to punish him for his acts and omissions on the immigration front.

In short, the President has a political problem on his hands; he needs to make progress on immigration reform, and ideally deliver the goods on CIR, as promised. His task of building a bipartisan consensus becomes immeasurably more complicated when he has to contend with friendly fire from within his own party, his own base of support. If nothing else, this has gotten the President’s attention, and he has been talking openly, and with increasing frequency, about the pressing need for CIR, including at a meeting on May 3rd with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).

According to a summary of the meeting released by the White House, CHC members pressed President Obama to use a variety of administrative measures to improve the immigration system, in the absence of a comprehensive reform bill. (See Readout of the President’s Meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Fixing the Broken Immigration System, White House Press Office, 03.May.2011.) The President reportedly demurred, saying that “his goal is to reform the law, and that he cannot do this unilaterally, noting that the only way to fix what’s broken about our immigration system is through legislative action in Congress.” However, Mr. Obama did promise to “carefully review” the CHC’s suggestions.

According to the White House, the President reiterated his support for immigration enforcement policies that focus scarce resources on finding, capturing, and deporting criminals, not going after immigrants who might be eligible for adjustment of status. He also updated CHC members on his recent meetings with other key stakeholders in the immigration debate, and “reaffirmed that he will continue to work to forge bipartisan consensus” and “intensify efforts to lead a civil debate on this issue in the coming weeks and months,” calling for a legislative fix at the earliest possible date.

In other words, the President made clear that he cannot fix our broken immigration system all by himself – which at times seems to escape the President’s critics on the left. This point was driven home in an open letter to Congressman Gutierrez from Fernando Espuelas of Univision Radio (See An Open Letter to Self-Proclaimed Immigrants’ Champion, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, by Fernando Espuelas,, 02.May.2011.)

“…Congressman, you tour the country giving histrionic speeches and making emotional statements to the media. ‘Obama broke his promise,’ you tell people ad nauseam – as if the president of the United States can enact laws without Congress actually passing them. But that’s not how it works, right? Congress passes laws and the president signs them. You know that. So why the fiction that Obama is fully and uniquely responsible for our joke of an immigration system?”

“…As you well know, and as the new census proves, Latinos have the numbers to be the kingmakers in 2012. We will be the determining voting block for both the presidency and control of Congress.”

Rather than staying home on election day – as Rep. Gutierrez says Latinos should consider – Espuelas contends that the Latino electorate should flex its muscles, registering voters and turning out in force on election day. Otherwise, says Espuelas, “there is a very real possibility that the next administration and the next Congress elected in 2012 will be in complete opposition to immigration reform – pushing it back years, if not decades.”

It remains an open question whether the President can bring the warring factions together to get a bipartisan immigration bill through Congress before the 2012 campaign makes that impossible. Some suspect that the window of opportunity has already closed, and that the President’s renewed enthusiasm for CIR is mostly an attempt to mend fences with his Latino base. Whatever his motivations, the President cannot be faulted for pointing out what should be obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the U.S. Constitution: only Congress can legislate, and the ball is squarely in their court.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.