Obama to Latino Voters: Comprehensive Immigration Reform Is Not Forgotten

In what must have been a welcome break from the ongoing battle over the debt ceiling, President Obama took time on Monday, July 25, to address a meeting of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino advocacy organization. The President spoke at length about our current economic predicament, outlining the steps he has taken to blunt the worst effects of a “vicious recession” that “hit Latino families especially hard.” (See: Remarks by the President to the National Council of La Raza, transcript, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 25.Jul.2011.)

The President spoke of shared sacrifice, and the need for fundamental fairness in sharing out the sacrifices, asking pointedly whether we are a nation that “asks only the middle class and the poor to bear the burden” of federal budget cuts – and presumably also tax increases. He enumerated the many ways in which his administration has helped Latino families with new consumer protections, health reforms, and educational initiatives.

While the president is surely proud of these accomplishments, there were other pressing reasons for telling Latino activists – chapter and verse – just what he’s done for them lately: Latinos are the fastest-growing voting bloc in the nation, and Obama will need their help to win a second term, so he has been courting this group assiduously in recent months. The rub is that President Obama still has yet to deliver on his promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation – not in his first year in office, as he pledged on the campaign trail, and likely not in his current term. The long prologue also served as a reminder – not quite an excuse – to Obama’s Latino constituents that economic problems have crowded many important issues – like immigration reform – off his agenda. The President was at pains to show he is still fighting the good fight, even as symptoms of political paralysis grow more apparent, day by day.

The President acknowledged that immigration reform – and the DREAM Act – remain “unfinished business,” and called for “an immigration system that holds true to our values and our heritage, and meets our economic and security needs.” This, said Obama, is not just the moral thing to do, but “an economic imperative.”

“In recent years, one in four high-tech startups in America – companies like Google and Intel – were founded on immigrants. One in six new small business owners are immigrants. These are job creators who come here to seek opportunity and now seek to share opportunity.

“This country has always been made stronger by our immigrants. That’s what makes America special. We attract talented, dynamic, optimistic people who are continually refreshing our economy and our spirit. And you can see that in urban areas all across the country where communities that may have been hollowed out when manufacturing left, or were having problems because of an aging population, suddenly you see an influx of immigration, and you see streets that were full of boarded-up buildings, suddenly they’re vibrant with life once again. And it’s immigrant populations who are providing that energy and that drive.

“And we have a system that right now allows the best and brightest to come study in America and then tells them to leave, set up the next great company someplace else. We have a system that tolerates immigrants and businesses that break the rules and punishes those that follow the rules. We have a system that separates families and punishes innocent young people for their parents’ actions by denying them the chance to earn an education or contribute to our economy or serve in our military. These are the laws on the books.”

The President also said he is sworn to uphold the laws currently on the books, but that he fully understands the “pain and heartbreak that deportations cause,” promising that “we are responding to your concerns and working every day to make sure we are enforcing flawed laws in the most humane and best possible way.” He assured the audience that he would like to change the laws, but his message was clear: I can’t do this by myself. Much as he might like to change the law on his own, Obama said, the Constitution requires him to work with Congress; as he drily observed, “I need a dance partner here – and the floor is empty.”

The President blamed Senate Republicans for spiking the DREAM Act when it reached their chamber, and he decried state immigration laws as “patchwork versions of reform that don’t solve the problem,” arguing that “we can’t have 50 immigration laws across the country.” He invited his listeners to “keep the heat on me and keep the heat on the Democrats” to get CIR accomplished, assuring them of his support, and that of his party, but pointing to the need for GOP cooperation to close the deal: “Remember who it is that we need to move in order to actually change the laws.”

Obama promised to “keep up this fight” – but one can’t help wondering how much his Latino listeners – like U.S. bondholders – have already steeply discounted that promise. Time will tell.

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.