08/24/2011 07:27 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

Anatomy of an Immigration Debate: Watch Your Mouth, Watch Your Step

The White House is scrambling to fix its mensaje and timing problem with Latino voters as demonstrated Thursday by a significant immigration policy change. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that approximately 300,000 undocumented immigrants facing deportation will have their cases individually reviewed, and if classified "low priority" can apply for work permits and stay in the U.S. indefinitely. This includes DREAMers-those who came as young children, graduated from high school, enrolled in college, or served in the armed forces and are seeking citizenship through the stalled DREAM Act.

Why now? The President, under pressure because of the flatlining economy and the ramp-up to the 2012 election, is facing two emerging verticals in the immigration debate that are compromising the loyalty of Hispanics: breaking his promise to overhaul the immigration system in his first year and accelerated enforcement, specifically bragging about the record deportations-about a million-due in part to of Secure Communities.

This controversial Department of Homeland Security program requires local law enforcement agents to run FBI fingerprint checks, resulting, according to a White House blog post in:
  • a 70% + increase from 2008 to 2010 in the deportation of those with criminal records and a decrease of those without.
  • More than half of all removals are people with criminal records.
  • Among those deported without criminal records, more than two-thirds were either caught as they crossed the border, had recently arrived, or had been repeatedly removed.

The Administration insists the increased deportations are a result of using existing resources in a more "strategic" way to target and remove illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes. Senior White House officials speaking on background on a Thursday conference call acknowledged that as a result of the program's criticism, improvements are being made, including training local police to not process non-violent immigrants or DREAMers for deportation; exercising more "prosecutorial discretion" to stay removals of those who don't have criminal records, were nabbed at the border, or are repeat crossers; as well as protecting the witnesses of crime and domestic violence victims.

This White House message, however, has been falling on deaf ears because the Latino community today is diverse, emboldened by its extraordinary demographic growth, young, and developing a keen, political savvy. I witnessed this at the National Council of La Raza annual convention when some young advocates in the audience interrupted the President's speech, demanding he use executive powers to halt the deportations of DREAMers which I blogged about in the post "Anatomy of an Immigration Debate: Presidential Carne Asada at NCLR." Protests are erupting across the country and online. (Presente in the context of a roll call means: "Here!"), for example, is circulating a petition to be delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW demanding that President Obama not "force your local police officer to turn people over to immigration," citing that non-violent immigrants are being rounded up with criminals.

While it is true that the President does not legislate which is why he needs Congressional support in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Latinos believe he is speaking one way to them and in another fashion to the rest of America: breaking his promise of immigration reform, then blaming obstructionist Republicans for refusing to be his "dance partner" versus talking tough, especially to non-Latino audiences, on enforcement.

Any dancer (I'm a big salsera) will confirm that on the dance floor, timing is everything. On immigration, as well as the economy, the President's is off. It is true that the GOP is not forcing its nativist wing to line up behind reform or listening to a sizable part of the business and faith-based community which supports an overhaul. But if there is one thing worse than having someone refuse your request to dance, it's being abandoned on the dance floor. Latinos feel the President has done just that.

With the election more than 14 months away, too many factors such as the slow economy and who becomes the GOP nominee are in play to predict the winner of the 2012 presidential contest.

But if a Republican wins because disillusioned and angry Latinos vote GOP, or more likely, sit out the election, President Obama and Democrats have one consolation: the developing political savvy of Hispanics, especially the youth, cuts both ways. As they increase their participation in the political process, they are learning to channel their inner Independent-the powerful segment of the electorate characterized by flipping parties if the one for which they cast ballots doesn't deliver.

Some advice for politicians: watch your mouth and your step, or in the next election cycle Latinos will take another Party to the dance floor.

The Wise Latina Club series "Anatomy of an Immigration Debate" analyzes the charged political and social context of the immigration debate and the extraordinary demographic changes confirmed by the 2010 U.S. Census that are re-defining and challenging our notion of the body politic as articulated in the motto imprinted on American currency "E pluribus unum"-"Out of Many, One." To read previous blog posts, click here.

A former ABC News correspondent, Viviana Hurtado, PHD is the bespectacled Blogger-in-Chief at The Wise Latina Club.