President Obama stepped up to the podium this week to address the largest and most powerful annual gathering of Chicano/Latinos and he was smiling. It was at the same NCLR annual conference that in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama, made one of the most stirring rebukes of this nation's immigration enforcement policies:
The system isn't working when 12 million people live in hiding, and hundreds of thousands cross our borders illegally each year; when companies hire undocumented immigrants instead of legal citizens to avoid paying overtime or to avoid a union; when communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids -- when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel.
And days before the election that would catapult him to the White House, Mr. Obama once again promised "to develop the right formula during my first year in office to reform our immigration laws. I am committed to do that."
Without a doubt, the immigrant community, yours truly included, perked up in those days before the 2008 presidential election and cranked up the volume to hear more of what this senator from Illinois had to say. The melody Mr. Obama was inviting us to dance was sweet music to our ears. The song's tone, rhythm, and lyrics were orchestrated so eloquently as to defy logic, partisanship, history. But, it worked. The Pied Piper of Illinois had so defiantly spoken against conformism and paralysis in Washington, DC that six out of ten Latino voters gave Barack Obama the nod. Even Florida Latinos cast their vote for Obama!
But the magic of the moment fizzled soon after President Obama was elected. The party favors, orchestra, and minstrels soon disappeared and the defiant and catchy melody turned grave and bewildered.
While there were a few well-meaning efforts to address immigration reform in the House and Senate under Democratic leadership, no progress was made. Outside Washington, DC, between President Obama's first day in office and the end of June 2011, one million immigrants and families have been detained, deported, or fired from their place of work. In addition, the well-oiled enforcement machine led by ICE in collaboration with local police departments under the rubric of the wrongly-named "Secure Communities," I-9 audits, and 287(g) agreements, just to name a few, is running full speed ahead.
Understandably, when the president argued once again at this year's NCLR conference that he is unable to do much on his own unless Republicans acquiesce and change our broken immigration laws, the chorus of "yes, you can" politely and in crescendo interrupted him.
During his speech, President Obama went to great pains to remind listeners that his administration is "keeping our promises." The audience must have nodded that when it came to the economy, gay and lesbian rights, and women's issues, the president has indeed delivered. But when President Obama pivoted to immigration reform, he blamed Republicans for the impasse, chided those who call on him to use his executive authority to alleviate the suffering of immigrant families, and committed to keep up the fight while encouraging the community to "keep the heat on me and Democrats." Lastly the Pied Piper in Chief, dressed in a most charming outfit, conceded he knows "very well the real pain and heartbreak that deportations cause" and he made an appeal we have heard once before: "Let's be honest. I need a dance partner, and the floor's empty."
It must not be an easy for President Obama to be at a party and not have a partner he can enjoy the music with. Although his political advisors are telling the president he has Latinos in the bag in 2012, the jury is by far out deliberating whether or not this president means it when he says he will fight the fight with us on the moral and practical issue of immigration reform. Does he meant it when he says we will not be stepped upon again? Thousands and thousands, millions even, of families throughout the United States are suffering on a daily basis the failure of this administration and this Congress to update our immigration laws. In the absence of real reform, immigrant communities everywhere have endured two and a half years of sustained torture led by none other than another "friend" of the community, Secretary Janet Napolitano, and face an increasing chorus of legislatures approving anti-immigrant, discriminatory, and unconstitutional laws. This song's tune is not for dancing.
Thus, the president must have surely felt the heat even while he read his speech at the NCLR conference. If he did, he kept his composure and was as eloquent and convincing as he was in 2008. But President Obama, Republicans and Democrats should recognize that we have danced together quite a lot during the past two years and a half and our feet are getting tired. Not tired enough to stop our fight for justice and changes in immigration laws so that they accurately reflect our nation's compassion, values, and interest. Not tired enough not to register millions more and switch the tune at the ballot box if this one does not suit us. Certainly we are not tired enough to remind our national elected leaders that even the most avid dancer can trip if he is not careful.