There is nothing astonishing about the fact that President Barack Obama’s Republican critics claim that he is taking U.S. Hispanics for a ride on immigration issues. What’s surprising is that some of Obama’s closest Democratic allies are beginning to say the same thing.
Virtually all Hispanic Democrats in the U.S. Congress — they include the only Hispanic Democratic Senator, Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey — are stepping up their criticism of Obama for not doing more on the immigration front.
Last week, I was amazed by what I heard from Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, a Democratic congressman from Chicago — the president’s hometown — and longtime Obama backer. Gutierrez was visiting Miami as part of a national tour to denounce Obama’s immigration stand, saying that he is playing games with Hispanics by claiming to be fighting for a comprehensive immigration reform, while not doing anything to stop massive deportations of people who shouldn’t be deported.
Obama has in recent weeks stepped up calls for congressional approval of an immigration overhaul that would both secure the border, and offer a path to earned legalization to millions of undocumented residents who are willing to pay penalties and learn English.
He had pledged during the 2008 campaign that he would pass such a law during his first year in office.
But Gutierrez and growing numbers of Democrats in Congress say that Obama’s immigration reform campaign is political posturing, because the president knows that he won’t get the votes for congressional passage of a comprehensive immigration reform in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Obama’s rhetoric may help win Hispanic votes for the 2012 elections by showing Republicans as the stumbling block for immigration reform, but is creating false expectations among Hispanics, they say.
So what should Obama do, I asked Gutierrez. There are many things Obama can do with discretionary powers he already has, without going to Congress, Gutierrez said.
First, Obama could use existing presidential powers to stop deportations of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who were brought to the United States as children, and who graduate from high school every year, and want to enter college or the armed forces, Gutierrez said. Obama has called repeatedly for congressional passage of the Dream Act, which would allow these youths to stay, but is not using his discretionary powers to delay their deportations until Congress decides on their fate, he added.
Second, Obama should use his executive powers to delay deportation of the parents of the estimated four million U.S.-born children who have at least one parent who does not have legal status, he said.
If the Obama administration recently used discretionary powers to give temporary residency status to Haitian immigrants to avoid their deportation to earthquake-devastated Haiti, why not give a similar relief to Mexicans who face deportation to violence-ridden Ciudad Juárez, he asked.
So why is Obama not doing any of this? I asked Gutierrez.
“The president doesn’t feel the pressure to do it, because he feels that Latinos will vote for him anyway,” he said. “But this is a matter of life and death, that has to be taken seriously, and not be used to deceive the Latino community as we come near the next elections.”
Responding to such criticism, Obama said in a recent speech in El Paso, Texas, “I wish I could simply bypass Congress and change the law myself, but that’s not how a democracy works.” A White House official told me that, while the administration continues to push for immigration reform in Congress, it is changing the way it enforces deportation procedures, focusing on removing undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
My opinion: Obama’s calls for congressional passage of a comprehensive immigration reform are a good electoral strategy to gain sympathies among Hispanics ahead of the 2012 elections, but is raising false expectations within the Latino community.
Obama should stop playing this game. Instead of fearing being criticized by Hispanic-phobic anti-immigration zealots for allegedly pursuing a blanket “amnesty” for 11 million undocumented residents, he should use his discretionary powers to give temporary status to some categories of immigrants.
For instance, as he said in his State of the Union address, “it makes no sense” to deport thousands of undocumented students who grew up as Americans, or others — including many from China, India and other parts of the world — who came to study in some of the best U.S. universities, and upon obtaining advanced degrees are “sent back home to compete against us.” Obama can stop their deportations, but — as far as we know — isn’t doing so.