Obama Fails on Immigration Reform

The president hasn’t only failed on immigration reform, critics say he’s making things worse. Patricia Murphy on why some Democrats are disgusted with their leader.

President Barack Obama greets audience members after he spoke about immigration reform at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas on May 10, 2011. (Photo: Charles Dharapak / AP Photo)

The words had an all-too-familiar ring.

When President Obama traveled to El Paso in May to call—again—for immigration reform, he sounded the same notes he has been hitting since 2008, when he promised Latino activists that he would pass reform within one year of taking office.

Obama spoke boldly to the League of Latin American Citizens during the campaign, saying “we need a president who isn't going to walk away from something as important as comprehensive immigration reform when it becomes politically unpopular.”

But three years later, with no immigration bill on the horizon and a record number of illegal immigrants being deported by the Obama administration, Latinos on Capitol Hill and across the country say they feel disillusioned and even betrayed by the man who promised them so much as a candidate and has delivered so little as president.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Obama’s home town of Chicago, describes the disappointment he felt after the Texas speech when he and his wife each received emails from Organizing for America, the president’s campaign organization, asking for a five-dollar contribution to help pass new immigration laws.

“Five bucks!” an agitated Gutierrez said in his Capitol Hill office. “I can’t begrudge him promoting the speech, but asking for money and making it into a campaign thing? I think that really speaks volumes about the fact that this is not a real attempt to get it done.”

Having failed to get it done when Obama’s party controlled the Hill and was obsessed with health care, the White House is now in a box, since the Republican-led House is not about to compromise on a Democratic bill.

Since Obama was elected, Democrats on the Hill say they have been forced to scale back their ambitions. They have gone from hoping for comprehensive reform to pushing the more narrow DREAM Act, which would have given college students and members of the military legal immigration status. After the DREAM Act failed in Congress last year with little pressure from the White House, Democrats were reduced to simply urging the administration to slow its aggressive rate of deportations.

“At least with George Bush, you knew he would put some political capital and skin in the game, which he did,” Rep. Gutierrez says.

The “ Secure Communities” program, which the Obama administration has expanded since 2009, calls for local law enforcement to cross-check every person arrested with federal immigration records and remove anyone in the country illegally. The result: a spike in the number of illegal immigrants being deported, now at an all-time high of 400,000 per year.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California, calls the program unfair and has asked the White House to restrict deportations to illegal immigrants who have committed other crimes.

“It’s not who we are. We can do so much better. It’s heartbreaking. It makes you feel ashamed that there are resources that are being used to do this.” Eshoo says. “The discretion is there with the president and I pray that he will do the right thing.”

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Another senior Democrat, who asked not to be named, called Obama’s immigration record “a disaster.”

“I campaigned for him. I put my reputation on line,” this Democrat says. “He either didn’t know what he was doing or he lied, because he has not done what he said he would do. I’m ashamed.”

Members of Congress who have watched the president navigate the tricky waters of the immigration issue say they see a familiar pattern: The president makes way for a battle between Republicans and Democrats that he can referee, rather than allowing the White House to become the target of political attacks.

“At least with George Bush, you knew he would put some political capital and skin in the game, which he did,” Gutierrez says. The 43rd president championed immigration reform until a revolt within his own party stopped the bill in the House in 2007. “He may not have been successful, but you know what? He fought. I don’t think Barack wants that fight with them. I think he sees his reelection differently.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, his own frustration with the president, Gutierrez keeps three framed pictures of his meetings with Obama in his office, reminders of the many appeals he and others have made to White House to make progress on the issue.

“Did I get tired by April? Yeah, and that’s when I said we’re going to go on the road.” Gutierrez is now in the middle of a 30-city tour demanding that the White House use an executive order to allow DREAM Act-eligible students to stay in the country and to stop deporting immigrants without criminal records.

National Latino leaders say they are seeing anger with the president across the country.

“In the states there is growing frustration among people because Latino Americans are the ones who are feeling the brunt of a lack of immigration reform,” says Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, a non-profit advocacy organization.

“There are 37 million U.S. citizens who are Latino and feeling the brunt of getting racially profiled, harassed and getting detained until they can prove who they are. It’s getting difficult, so the patience within the Latino community is wearing thin because they have to face it every day.”

In addition to losing allies on Capitol Hill, activists say Obama risks losing a portion of the Latino vote, which was key to delivering swing states with large Hispanic populations, including Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.

GOP strategists are hoping that a combination of anger with the president and a renewed focus on economic issues could open the door for a Republican challenger to peel away at least some of the Obama coalition from 2008.

“Latinos are just as concerned about jobs and the economy as everyone else,” says Leslie Sanchez, author of Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other. “It mobilizes the Democratic base to talk about immigration reform. Independents and conservatives are looking at the economic picture and what the parties can offer.”

Even a small swing would help Republicans with Latinos, whose political influence is growing along with their numbers. According to the Pew Center, the share of Hispanic voters jumped from 5.8 percent of the electorate in 2006 to 6.9 percent in 2010, when it spiked as high as 32 percent in some states.

“This is a conversation about a promise that was made by the president of the United States in which we kept our part of the bargain, in which Nevada came through, New Mexico came through, Colorado, Florida came through. Sixty-seven percent of the Latino vote came through,” says Gutierrez, who would not commit to endorsing Obama in 2012. “In the general election we gave him overwhelming support based on a covenant. We just want him to keep his part of the bargain.”

Patricia Murphy is a writer in Washington, D.C., where she covers Congress and politics.