On Monday, President Barack Obama will make a luncheon speech at the National Conference of La Raza’s (NCLR) annual conference in Washington, DC. While most of the political class is mesmerized by the debt ceiling negotiations, millions of Latinos will be focused on what the president says -- or doesn’t say -- about immigration reform.
The fact that he’s speaking at the NCLR conference has special meaning for Latinos and their allies. In July of 2008, at the NCLR annual conference in San Diego, candidate Obama famously promised to make immigration reform a priority during the first year of his presidency. Here’s part of what he said just three years ago:
Well, I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a President who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular. And that's the commitment I'm making to you. I marched with you in the streets of Chicago. I fought with you in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform. And I will make it a top priority in my first year as President. Not just because we need to secure our borders and get control of who comes into our country. And not just because we have to crack down on employers abusing undocumented immigrants. But because we have to finally bring those 12 million people out of the shadows.
The speech – especially “the promise” – electrified the crowd and galvanized the Latino vote for Obama’s campaign. In 2008, Obama went on to carry four swing states that George W. Bush had won just four years earlier: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. Latinos turned out in record numbers and swung from red to blue more than any other voter group.
Three years later, with the president having failed to keep his promise, and with immigration being an even more important issue to Latino voters, an increasing numbers of Latino voters are unhappy with the president.
Recent polling by Latino Decisions shows that immigration is the number one issue for Latinos, topping the economy and jobs by 51 percent to 35 percent (education came in third at 18 percent). In recent Gallup polling, Obama’s approval ratings hover at around 50 percent from a community that previously had him at high 70s approval rating early in his presidency. Moreover, three successive 2011 tracking polls by Latino Decisions shows that less than 50 percent of Latino voters are certain to vote for Obama in 2012 (he won 67 percent in 2008).
This is how Gabriel Sanchez, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and Research Director for Latino Decisions, analyzes the situation:
Over the past year more than 400,000 people were deported by Immigration Customs and Enforcement, and several states have passed controversial immigration laws in line with Arizona’s SB1070. Furthermore, just this week when speaking about potential solutions to immigration, Congressman Mo Brooks (Republican from Alabama) promised that he would do anything "short of shooting" undocumented immigrants. This is just the latest indicator of the growing hostility that has characterized the political climate surrounding immigration policy over the past several years. As reflected in the data presented in this blog, the Latino population is very conscious of this tension, as a robust 76% of Latino registered voters believe that an anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant environment exists today. Furthermore, a sizable segment of the Latino electorate knows someone who is undocumented and/or someone who has been deported due to their immigration status. The personal relationship Latinos have to state and federal immigration policy helps to explain why there has been a major shift in Latino attitudes toward immigration, and is also impacting Latinos’ approval of the job President Obama is doing reforming immigration policy. It will therefore be extremely difficult to engage Latino voters without addressing what is becoming painfully obvious: that for Latinos, immigration is no longer about politics, it’s personal.
These are the sentiments that will charge the room at the NCLR conference as the president steps to the podium.
Without a doubt, President Obama will use the speech to reiterate his support for comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act. He will once again call on Republicans to stop blocking progress on these measures. And these riffs will be well received. But the thousands of Latinos in the room and the millions paying attention around the country will be listening intently to see if the president offers something new, something with edge, something for right now. They know that Republican control of the House means pro-immigrant legislative measures don’t stand much of a chance in this Congress. They want the president to use his authority to make life better in immigrant communities immediately.
Here are some bold administrative moves that would energize Latinos across the land:
- He could announce a new policy that will protect DREAMers – young people who qualify for the DREAM Act – from deportation and allow them to apply for temporary stays and work permission.
- He could announce meaningful changes in the way DHS works with local police so that immigrants convicted of serious crimes are prioritized for detention and deportation and ordinary immigrants who get swept up in the deportation dragnet for driving with a broken tail light or without a license are not.
- He could announce ways for Americans sponsoring undocumented loved ones to be able to do so without having to leave the country to apply for waivers, a move that can result in husbands and wives being separated for a decade or more.
- The president could also bring the audience to their feet by promising to stand up to Republicans bullying and extremism in Congress.
- He could denounce a pernicious bill proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith in the House and Sen. David Vitter in the Senate called the Hinder the Administration's Legalization Temptation (HALT) Act, a measure designed to strip from him the power to use prosecutorial discretion in immigration matters. In reality, the GOP is trying to intimidate him into inaction so that he won’t take the kind of bold administrative actions that would be enormously popular with Latinos.
- He could also denounce a radical legislative proposal to shoehorn an error-prone federal database called E-Verify into every new hiring decision made in America. The goal of Lamar Smith and his fellow anti-immigrant crusaders is to drive undocumented workers out of the labor market. They actually tout it as the GOP jobs plan! But the evidence is clear: Mandating E-Verify would be a job killer. It would keep 770,000 legal American workers from getting jobs, impose an unfunded mandate on small businesses, drive many immigrant workers from payroll jobs into the exploitive arms of unscrupulous employers who dominate the off-the-books labor market, and threaten America’s agriculture industry. All for a data base that works less than half the time to identify illegal workers.
The NCLR speech will be a telling moment. The anti-immigrant zeal of Republicans at all levels of government has Latinos deeply concerned. But the fact that President Obama has not leaned into this issue and fought as hard as he might for a community tired of being demonized and disrespected is also concerning. On Monday, they will find out if the candidate who promised to fight for them three years ago is a president who is willing to do so now.