Obama, Immigration and His Legacy
by Maria de los Angeles Torres
December 24, 2010
Last weekend the Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act.
It would have provided a path to citizenship for thousands of undocumented, foreign born American youth who have successfully graduated from U.S. high schools and wanted to either go to college or serve in the military.
The President can wag his finger at the Republicans and a few Democrats who failed to vote for the bill.
However, he should also reflect on his and his advisors' role in fueling the flames of anti-immigration.
Since taking office a year and half ago, the Administration has vigorously implemented immigration enforcement, without defending the need for immigration reform or using his position to humanize immigrants.
More immigrants --- including young people --- have been deported under this Administration than any other in the history of the United States.
This year alone they are poised to deport over 400,000 immigrants.
Criminalizing immigrants without providing relief has fueled anti- immigrant sentiments, making reform more difficult.
Using anti-immigrant stances to appeal to conservative voters was a strategy conceived by Democrat Rahm Emanuel who was in charge of his Party's 2006 midterm elections (a fact not lost on Chicago's immigrant communities).
He branded immigration the "third rail" of American politics and instructed candidates in conservative districts to take a hard line against immigrants.
This short-lived strategy failed to produce reliable voting partners in Congress and indeed most of the Blue Dogs ended up losing their elections this last time around.
A different strategy --- indeed supported by 65% of American voters and almost 80% of Latino voters --- would have put the Democrats at the forefront of immigration reform.
This would have positioned them to consolidate a historic realignment of Latino voters --- the fastest growing bloc in the nation --- towards the Democratic Party and simultaneously positioning themselves as world leaders on a critical issue.
After all, immigrant labor is an essential part of global economies and what better country than the United States to lead on this issue.
Deploying Executive Powers In the face of inaction by Congress, the President has the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to use his executive powers to alleviate the situation.
He can use his parole powers selectively to include students who would qualify under a DREAM Act as Senators Durbin and Lugar have asked.
He can order a moratorium on deportations that divide families.
He can emphasize deportations of those convicted of violent crimes not just minor offenses.
He can protect those who are contributing to our economy. He can stop sucking up local enforcement resources that instead should be used to fight local crimes.
He can certainly humanize conditions in detention centers.
In the past, he has dismissed this approach by claiming that he took an oath to uphold the law and that the will of Congress is to deport those here without legal documents since they appropriate monies to do so.
With this textbook interpretation of Congressional mandate, he has inadvertently created a quota system resulting in a record number of deportations, which has had the effect of poisoning public debate about this issue and has not delivered Republican support.
Even as he dismisses arguments based on human rights concerns, he should understand that there are also compelling economic and political reasons to use executive power.
Why deport students in whom we have invested years of public monies to educate and who are about to begin contributing to its economy, one in desperate need of a young labor force?
Why divide families that are an integral part of our communities?
Why not provide leadership in the face of a fear and hatred that is destroying important elements of our democracy?
There is no denying that this is a very complicated issue.
The United States does have a long history of rejecting, particularly in economic hard times, but also accepting into our political community immigrants (as well as others) who have been excluded on the basis of their nationality, race, gender and age.
Congress has not always led the difficult fight to be tolerant and more inclusive.
Presidents have had to step in, Lincoln is one example, so are Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who in the early 1960s paroled over 300,000 Cubans, including me, who were in the United States without proper documentation.
This was done in the midst of public outcry about security concerns and fears that Cubans would change "the complexion of the city of Miami and that someday they would demand the right to vote."
Only much later did Congress pass the Cuban Adjustment Act that provided a quick path to citizenship.
The President is absolutely right in pointing out that comprehensive immigration reform is the answer and that Republicans are the main obstacle, but in the meantime he needs to own up to his own Party's shameful opportunism on this issue and exert leadership.
Prior to his election, President Obama made promises he could only keep if elected.
He is now in the White House, and he will be judged by whether or not he uses his powers to begin fixing a broken immigration system he so deplored during his campaign.
A first step would be to place a moratorium on the deportation of "Dreamers," an act that would contribute positively to his presidential legacy, a legacy that will be tarnished if he fails to address this civil rights issue of the day.
Maria de los Angeles Torres is a professor and director of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
She is the author of The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children and the Promise of a Better Future (2004), and In the Land of Mirrors: Cuban Exile Politics in the United States (2001).
As a Cuban refugee, she was a "parolee" from 1961-1965.
Dr. de los Angeles Torres can be reached at email@example.com