Leadership, Not Passivity Needed from the White House on Immigration

07/01/2010 07:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Americans across the country held their collective breath Thursday morning as President Barack Obama spoke out on the issue of immigration reform. Would he advocate for amnesty? Perhaps he would advocate for the unilateral deportation of 12 million Latinos. Unfortunately, his speech did little for either side.

While rhetorically uplifting, President Obama simply restated the obvious - the system is broken, immigrants are at risk of being exploited, and reform has been held hostage to political posturing. And while the President rightly put the blame squarely on the shoulders of intransigent Republicans for failing to work to pass an immigration law, his speech begs the question, what's next?

Trying to carve a path that signaled to Latinos that he intended to keep his campaign promise to enact comprehensive immigration reform while trying hard not to set off right-wingers in an important election year, Obama accomplished little in his speech. In the process, however, he demonstrated why it is time for leadership, not passivity from the White House on the immigration issue.

Just this year alone Americans have witnessed an abdication of responsibility on the immigration issue by the Obama Administration and the Congress. The result? Individual states are now beginning to take matters into their own hands. Arizona has passed one of the most anti-immigrant laws in generations, allowing police officers to determine a person's legal status - essentially acting as immigration judge and jury all along the side of the road. And they may soon take up another measure that would deny U.S. citizenship to children born in this country if their parents are in the United States illegally. Never mind that this little effort runs counter to the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.

In Nebraska, voters recently enacted a measure banning the hiring or renting of property to undocumented workers. And along the U.S.-Mexico border in California, conservatives continue to argue for a 2,000-mile fence to keep "those people" out of our country, going so far as to advocate for an armed militia to punctuate our point.

So what will it finally take to get the President off his chair and into the debate? That remains unclear. What is clear is that the Latino community is furious at President Obama for not keeping his promise to enact comprehensive immigration reform after nearly two years in office. According to a recent Gallup poll, President Obama's approval rating among Latinos has dropped 12 points, from 69 percent to 57 percent. And what is also clear is that rhetoric will not solve this problem. Now is the time for deeds, not words.

While it may seem that now is not the time to take such a daring approach - months away from Congressional elections, a bad economy, record unemployment - as Robert F. Kennedy once said, "If not us, who. If not now, when?" That sentiment is as true today as it was in his time.

For starters, while he touched on the DREAM Act in his remarks, he fell short of directing Congress to move immediately on passage. He also said little to comfort the millions of people living here in the shadows, working hard while in constant fear of deportation. And while he certainly laid the groundwork for passage of comprehensive immigration reform, his carefully calibrated remarks carved a centrist path that did little, as he said, to "kick the can down the road."

To be clear, as the President pointed out in his speech, neither he nor most of the Democrats in Congress are to blame for the lack of action on immigration reform. Congressional Republicans who pass themselves off as acting in the best interest of America are acting in the most un-American of ways. Rather than trying to find a way to be constructive, these "Americans" are working overtime to be the messengers of demagoguery by stoking the flames of hatred and division.

But President Obama fell into the same trap as those before him on the immigration issue. By alluding to immigrants as the reason for the proliferation of guns, drugs and crimes along the border, he continued the age-old tradition of blaming immigrants for all that is wrong at the border.

Perhaps President Obama can take a page out of another president's playbook - the gipper himself, President Ronald Reagan, that mythical, iconic figure from the right - stand up for what you believe in. Passivity will not get it done, nor will rhetorical flashes. It will require political capital and hard work. An entire country is looking for leadership, not passivity on this one. Because if it now, when?

Jim Gonzalez is the Chairman of the Latino Policy Coalition, a national Latino policy think tank, a former San Francisco County Supervisor and author of the first "sanctuary city" ordinance in the country.