“We are enforcing flawed laws in the most humane and best possible way,” said Obama during his speech to the largest Hispanic civil rights group in the nation on Monday. “I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own. Believe me…”
According to data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Obama administration has deported over 1 million immigrants since the beginning of its term in 2009.
Obama’s speech was interrupted by chants of “Yes, you can. Yes, you can,” in mock imitation of his 2008 presidential campaign slogan, the implication being that the president could put a stop to the deportations through an executive action.
Obama defended himself by putting the onus on the Republicans for failing to pass a meaningful immigration reform package, including their rejection of the Dream Act, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented students. California Governor Jerry Brown approved a version of the bill on Monday, granting undocumented students in the state access to privately funded scholarships.
“He can’t pass the Dream Act by himself, but he can stop the deportations,” said Felipe Matos, an undocumented student from Presente.org, which initiated the chanting. “He is the president that has deported more people than any other before him,” Matos added.
The group, which advocates for Latino rights, has shadowed Obama during numerous public appearances in Texas, Florida and even Puerto Rico. Organizers have vowed to continue doing so until the president uses the executive powers available to him to stop the deportations of non-criminal immigrants, especially youth.
Janet Murguia, the executive director of NCLR, said Latinos are becoming increasingly disappointed with Obama over his failure to keep his campaign promises on immigration reform.
“It’s difficult for us to hear the president saying, on the one hand, that he is distressed and concerned about the pain that’s being caused and the families that are separated, while on the other hand, we know that it is his administration that is the key source of that pain,” said Murguia during a press conference after the speech.
Clarissa Martinez, director of Immigration and National Campaigns at NCLR, said the Obama administration is not living up to the priorities it set forth for the Department of Homeland Security of going after the most dangerous criminals. Through programs like Secure Communities, it hasn’t applied much discretion when it comes to the removal of people in the country that don’t have a criminal record or are potential candidates for the Dream Act, she explained.
Raquel Terán, deputy director of Promise Arizona, a group involved in civic engagement and human rights, offers a more optimistic assessment of Obama’s commitment to immigration.
“He can be stronger, he can be more aggressive, and that’s what we are looking for,” said Terán. “We have to come out and vote. At this point, what matters is that we get our voices out.”
Others in the audience applauded Obama’s speech for focusing on issues beyond immigration, including education and healthcare.
“I like the fact that he didn’t make it just an immigration policy speech, but he talked about all the issues that are impacting Latinos and indeed all of America,” said Carlos Galindo Elvira, vice-president of Philanthropic and Community Relations at Valle del Sol, a non-profit that serves Latinos in Arizona.
It’s not surprising that, given the uphill battle over the debt ceiling in Congress, Obama’s speech veered from immigration. But a straw poll conducted by NCLR among participants at the conference showed for the first time that at this moment, immigration is the most significant issue for Latinos.
Critics argue that Obama’s presence at the conference was simply a means of courting the Latino vote, and that his speech simply reiterated more of the same broken promises made earlier. Currently, there are over 50 million Latinos in the nation, representing about 9 percent of the electorate.
“He has no option. He either gets the Latino community to support him or he is not going to be president again,” said Daniel Ortega, chair of NCLR’s board of directors. Ortega gave a mixed review of Obama’s performance to date.
In a general sense, says Ortega, Obama has served the Latino community through the appointments of figures like Hilda Solis as secretary of the treasury and Sonya Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. But Ortega underscored that Obama “burnt” a lot of political capital on health care reform and his inability to move forward on issues like immigration.
Murguia said Latinos face a political dilemma when it comes to choosing politicians from either party that will represent them and avoiding the trap of having to choose from the “lesser of two evils.”
As an example, she cited the fact that four Republican presidential candidates -- Mit Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gringrich – turned down didn’t invitations to speak at the conference.
Neither party is making Latinos a priority, but Latino voters are partly to blame for that, she added.
“The reality is that we haven’t tapped our potential to turn out as an electorate and hold our elected officials accountable,” she said, suggesting that civic engagement will soon be one of the key platforms for NCLR. “We are a community of 50 million people and we need to take the steps to empower ourselves.”
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