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To Vote or Not to Vote, That Is Not the Question

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An active critic of mine emailed me recently wondering if my strategy and that of other immigrant rights advocates was to defeat President Obama by blaming him relentlessly for the lack of progress on immigration reform and/or urge Latinos not to vote in 2012. Did I want President Obama to be a one-term president, he asked. Did I think a Republican would do any better on behalf of immigrants?

There is no way to sugar coat it. President Obama has failed miserably in his promise to update our flawed immigration system. But as much as our community's grief pushes me to detest, denounce, and defy this administration's terror-inducing immigration policies, I do not for a minute think that getting rid of President Obama or withholding my vote next November will do my family, the community, or the nation any good whatsoever.

The question is not whether I will vote in 2012. The question is how to make my vote count. How do immigrants and Latinos flex their voting muscle to effectively remind our national elected leaders, whoever they may be, that we cannot be taken for granted, especially when it comes to solving a deeply-emotional and personal issue like immigration reform?

Many of us will remember the highly-publicized and often replayed immigration reform promises then candidate-Obama made to Latinos and immigrants at key constituent gatherings, including NCLR's national conference. There were no embarrassing pauses or caveats, or much blaming of the opposing party for that matter, in his speeches as he pointedly chastised a system that blindly separates mothers from their babies. Latino voters were enthralled by the empathy and compassion of his words and gave him our vote by the millions.

For two years in a row, address after address, President Obama held steadfast in his expressed commitment to change the dangerously broken immigration system. He told small groups and large groups alike, elected officials and celebrities, advocates and community members that he was personally committed and engaged in finding a solution. All we were missing, the president would often say, is one or two courageous Republicans. He rarely, if ever, talked about the non-courageous Democrats in Congress that were committed to block any attempt by the White House to pass any type of immigration reform legislation.

There was something else missing from the president's usual words of encouragement on immigration reform: the Obama administration's deportation machine was moving full speed ahead all the while we held out hope for our dose of change to come. For two years the president offered various explanations as to why immigration reform would not happen. He did not, however, have the courage to explain why he felt compelled to tear apart close to a million families and exponentially expand toxic monsters like the "Secure Communities" program.

So, when in early May of this year the president announced with much fanfare that he would make a major speech on immigration, I perked up. With twelve American flags blowing elegantly in the background, the president asserted that immigration reform "is not just the right thing to do. It's right for our economy. The question is, will we finally summon the political will to do something about it?" I detected a wistful tone in his voice and for a moment I wondered if he was talking about himself or Congress. He went on: "That's one reason it's been so difficult to reform our broken immigration system. When an issue is this complex, when it raises such strong feelings, it's easier for politicians to defer the problem until the next election. And there's always a next election."

I understood then that President Obama had always meant well, but his lack of progress on immigration reform is deplorable and his tacit approval of a merciless state-imposed detention and deportation regime is disgraceful. To my chagrin, this president had become a mediocre shadow of the candidate I was led to believe would lead us to change.

The president's vision for a 21st century immigration system is an online document anyone can review. With terms like responsibility, accountability, competitiveness, and a system of laws that reflects our values and diverse needs, the White House clearly has covered all its bases. It even includes a section on mandatory E-Verify, a system that determines an applicant's work eligibility. No mind that the database behind the program contains more than ten million errors and has been found to miss more than half of unauthorized workers.

The intent, the desire, and the wish for immigration reform remain alive and well in the president's vision of a multicultural and immigrant society. It's the doing that has yet to materialize. It's the change that has yet to reach my community. It's the President Obama of yonder, the public servant I bestowed my vote upon that has yet to stand and deliver.

While the president and his Administration come to their senses on real immigration policy, I will continue to support actions that challenge, not hinder, our nation's democratic process. I will continue to press for social justice in the broadest term possible, while engaging with those elected leaders that can make change possible. If our elected leaders are unable, incapable, or unwilling to forge change, I will use every tool within my reach, including words, to encourage, cajole, foster public discourse and public action. For one thing, there remains millions of unregistered immigrant voters. Our voting records are improving but can certainly reach stronger numbers. Millions of permanent residents now qualify for citizenship and it's time we step up and take the plunge. Finally, our community's dollars need to speak as loud as our marching brothers and sisters. Unless we donate to the causes we believe in, the opposition will always undercut (and pay well to do it) our efforts. Because I seek the change that was promised to me and my community the first time I voted in 2008, there is no way I can withhold my vote now or in the future for this or any other elected leader.