2011 is almost gone. For Latinos in the United States, it was primarily a year to forget.
Life hasn't been good, and Hispanics have suffered the same fate as the much of the general population: persistent unemployment, political uncertainty and a deep sense of dejection. But as a group, their fate was worse: according to the Department of Labor, last month, when the national unemployment rate was 8.3 percent, for Latinos it reached 11.4 percent.
Among veterans returning from Iraq unemployment reached 11.4 percent in general and 14 percent for Hispanics (and blacks).
In 2011, for the most part, Latino political influence in national affairs is almost non-existent. Neither Latino community representatives nor supporters could stop the onslaught of negative news. This year, just as in the two that came before, the Obama administration tried not to alienate independent and white voters by avoiding immigration reform as if it were leprosy. Obama’s election-year promise to offer a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants during his first year in office vanished in clouds of both stark reality and mere excuses.
At the same time, Washington deported undocumented immigrants in record numbers. Thus, in 2009 there were 389,834, 392,862 in 2010, and 396,606 by November 2011. This year, the number is expected to surpass 400,000 for the first time in history.
Could it be that there is so much anti-immigrant furor in the country that the president simply cannot resist the pressure? The latest public opinion polls point to the contrary. According to a Fox News survey from November, 63 percent of the population favors increasing the number of legal immigrants, 66 percent view positively the path to citizenship as a solution to the issue, and only 19 percent favored deportation. In a July Time poll, 62 percent of respondents opposed a constitutional amendment that would bar children of immigrants from becoming citizens. In other polls, about 90 percent of the population considers immigration a very serious or serious problem. On all other immigration issues, the public is almost equally divided.
In a September interview for The Huffington Post at the White House, I asked the president about his record deportation numbers. "The statistics are actually a little deceptive because what we've been doing is, with the stronger border enforcement we've been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back," he said. "That is counted as a deportation, even though they may have only been held for a day or 48 hours, sent back -- that's counted as a deportation."
However, the practice the president referred to, known as "expedited removal" is not new and dates to 1996.
In reality, the White House may have a difficult time explaining how it can be both a champion for the promise of reform as well as architect of the most repressive practices against immigrants in recent decades.
As a corollary, as Ray Sanchez wrote in The Huffington Post, "the deportation of undocumented immigrants has left an estimated 5,100 children languishing in U.S. foster homes -- a troubling figure that could triple in the coming years."
This increase in deportations together with the failure of immigration reform (which he continues to support verbally) have caused Obama's popularity among Hispanics to slide further this year. While shortly after taking office he enjoyed 85 percent support, in June that dropped to 62 percent and today it's down to 56 percent.
In order to get at least the 65 percent of the Latino vote he received in 2008 (against only 43 percent of the vote among whites), which is absolutely necessary for his re-election, the White House has lately sought to improve relations, granting interviews to Latino media and organizing meetings with Latino leaders. But these efforts, for now, seem cosmetic acts of kindness and goodwill unrelated to policy.
The Administration says its hands are tied by the obstinate Republican opposition in Congress to any immigration reform.
True, but from here, he does not appear to struggle mightily to untie those hands.
In 2011, even more than the preceding two years, policy has been shaped by the fact that 2012 is an election year. The Republicans, in their disciplined way, have prevented any evidence of a division between their extreme right wing and the so-called moderates by continually unifying to confront the president. The political, economic and social developments in 2011 were a reflection of this unifying effort, and the issue of immigration and the Latino community is part of this.
That explains why in 2011 and 2010, the attention that Latinos were unable to obtain at the federal level, they received from state governments in Republican hands.
In fact, the Republican attitude on Latinos is the reverse of that of Obama. For the president and Democrats, it is a divisive issue. Touch it and risk losing crucial independent votes. For the GOP, on the contrary, hostility towards undocumented immigrants is a unifying factor.
Therefore, neither Democrats nor Republicans fought the xenophobic and nativist political environment that continued to expand, as reflected in the many presidential debates. The anti-immigrant agenda made a triumphant return to the scene of mainstream politics.
In 2011, several states sought to enact their own immigration reform, even though legally the matter is exclusively federal. By September, there were anti-immigrant laws enacted in Arizona, Alabama, Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah, and others at various stages of the legislative process.
Arizona's SB 1070, considered a model for the rest, again attracted opposition from Hispanic activists and institutions this year. But the most severe and controversial legislation has been Alabama's AB56. Basically, all of these laws authorize the state police to detain individuals suspected of being undocumented immigrants, and to deny certain rights and funds for education, employment, housing and public health, to the point of requiring school principals to provide lists of "illegal" children. These laws have been challenged in court and provisions have been declared unconstitutional.
Reflecting on this anti-immigrant frenzy, one might think that illegal crossings on the border with Mexico remains high. But in reality the numbers have fallen to the lowest levels since the Nixon presidency.
A Dec. 11 report by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) states that "U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions—a key indicator of illegal immigration—decreased to 340,252 in FY 2011, down 53 percent since FY 2008" - and here is the big difference - "one fifth of what they were at their peak in FY 2000."
Far fewer Latino immigrants are crossing the border these days; those who come pay much higher sums to get here and rarely find work upon arrival.
This year ends the way it began, only that the country is closer to a national election. The campaign promises to remain divisive, and during the primary election cycle, Republican candidates will undoubtedly compete to be the one to deport more undocumented immigrants when he or she becomes president. Only now they have a higher threshold: President Barack Obama.
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