Latinos need immigration reform, not crumbs

Gustavo Torres, director of Casa in Action, center, called on President Obama to fulfill his promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform during a rally in front of the White House in Washington D.C.
(Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

President Obama increased his appeal among Latino voters from 67% to 71% in four years despite the fact that he reneged on his central 2008 campaign promise to “fix our broken immigration system.” This overwhelming support may actually undermine the cause of immigration reform, because it tells the Democrats that the Latino vote is solidly on their side regardless of specific policy stances. This has the dangerous consequence of handing the issue over to the Republicans and their exclusionary, divide-and-conquer approach. Latinos should accept neither Democratic backpedaling nor a new Republican ploy, but push for more comprehensive and inclusionary solutions.

Obama has blamed the Republicans for his failures on immigration reform. But the record speaks for itself. During the fall of 2010, the final months of a Democratic-led Congress, the president had a golden opportunity to push through key legislation. He successfully put his political capital on the line to overcome aggressive GOP opposition to the acceptance of gays in the military and to a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

But the president refused to do the same to guarantee a path to citizenship for up to 1.7 million responsible, mostly young Latino students through the Dream Act. As a result, the bill fell short of overcoming filibuster by only five votes in the Senate. Widespread Latino social mobilization and consciousness-raising was successful at setting the agenda and garnering enough potential GOP support for its passage. But the lack of presidential leadership provided the political space for five senators from Obama’s own party to vote against ending debate.


Obama has also violated the trust of the Latino population by deporting undocumented immigrants at a frenzied pace. In four years, he set an all-time record by expelling 1.4 million people. This is especially remarkable given the fact that unauthorized border crossings have gone down significantly during his administration. In fact, Obama’s deportation rate is 1.5 times higher than that of George W. Bush, even though Bush was president in the midst of an unprecedented groundswell of illegal immigration.

Obama finally did issue an executive order in June that gives those who would have been eligible for the Dream Act a temporary, two-year reprieve from deportation. But this measure is of doubtful legal status and does not offer a long-term solution. It is a classic example of electoral pandering designed to keep Latino votes on board without actually responding to their needs and demands.

The pandering worked. Latinos have demonstrated that their fear of the Republicans, and in particular of the tea party, is so high that they will vote for the Democrats almost regardless of their policies. Obama can continue to offer nothing more than crumbs to Latinos, sure of their support for his party in the next election.

This explains why the president failed to put forth a positive new vision of immigration reform at his first postelection news conference. He took a decidedly conservative approach by emphasizing “a path to legal status” over citizenship, “border security” over immigrant rights and “paying fines” over unifying families. For Obama, “comprehensive” immigration reform apparently means doing less, not more, than the Dream Act, and “seizing the moment” implies handing the ball over to the Republicans.

But such a move comes at a heavy price. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has stated, “I intend to … pass an immigration reform bill that’s an American solution to an American problem.” For instance, one of the principles of the new law, according to Graham,, should be that “they can’t stay unless they learn our language.”

Such jingoistic, exclusionary, us-versus-them talk makes it clear that Republicans are not interested in supporting Latinos and their families as a group, but only in conquering a part of the Latino electorate to maintain political power. They intend to do so by driving a wedge between a minority of supposedly “American” Latinos and the “un-American” rest.


The “American” solution defended by the Republicans would imply cutting back to a minimum those eligible for citizenship and making them wait decades to get it. The Achieve Act being worked on by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is explicit in this regard. Such an approach would also involve an even sharper increase in deportations and restriction of rights for those who are not eligible for legal status. There would most likely also be an expansion of racial profiling by law enforcement, English-only policies, restrictions on Latino studies programs, an increase in the persecution of immigrants by state and local authorities and new, draconian border security measures. In other words, it would involve the spread of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino measures passed in Arizona, Montana and other states.

Instead of squandering their newfound national political strength by accepting new crumbs, this time from the Republican table, Latinos and their allies in the Democratic Party should outflank Obama and impose the terms of the national debate on immigration reform. Instead of waiting for the politicians in Washington to hammer out a new bipartisan coalition behind closed doors, Latinos should reach out to each other, organize and construct a new society-based coalition that has the power to literally change the face of the United States.

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a visiting scholar at American University. He is the editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine.