By Mike Lillis - 08/21/11 09:15 AM EDT
President Obama's move to halt deportations for thousands of illegal immigrants will resonate with Latino voters only to the extent that he backs it up, immigration reform advocates warned this week.
The advocates have been disappointed in Obama for not fighting harder for the immigration reforms he'd promised on the campaign trail — dismay the president eased this week by announcing new rules allowing non-violent illegal immigrants to remain in the country indefinitely.
"There has been a lot of skepticism in the Latino community about the President's willingness to fight on the immigration issue," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said Friday in an email. "So my sense is people will wait to see how the new Homeland Security procedures are implemented and how hard the President fights back against the inevitable backlash from Fox [News] and the Republicans."
Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration at the National Council of La Raza, echoed that sentiment.
"As an initial move, it's very significant. It gives him a stronger platform to say he's doing what he said he'd do," she said Friday. "But implementation will be crucial."
Sen. Dick Durbin, a close Obama ally and one of the loudest immigration reform proponents on Capitol Hill, sounded a similar note this week. The Illinois Democrat said the new policy represents "a fair and just way to deal with an important group of immigrant students." But Durbin was quick to add that he'll "closely monitor DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] to ensure it is fully implemented."
Unveiled Thursday, the new rules will eliminate blanket exile for those in the process of being deported. Instead, DHS officials will perform case-by-case reviews, prioritizing violent criminals and other public menaces, while closing the books on students and others not considered a threat.
Many Democrats have hailed the change as a common-sense prioritization of limited resources. But Republicans are hammering it as an end-around Congress, which defeated a similar proposal — the DREAM Act — in December.
Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the subpanel on border security, said the change is "a blatant attempt to grant amnesty to potentially millions of illegal aliens in this country."
"In reality, this decision to vastly expand the exercise of ‘prosecutorial discretion’ in enforcing our federal immigration laws means that the administration will now be, in a huge number of cases, simply ignoring those laws," the Republicans said Friday in a joint statement.
Yet, if Obama's political standing in the ever-growing Hispanic community hinges on how well he implements the new rules, advocates have an even harsher warning for GOP critics.
“One of the surest ways for the Republican Party to help re-elect President Obama is to oppose this common sense policy change," Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group, said Friday in a statement.
"The message these hard liners send is clear: Latinos are not welcome in this country no matter how hard they work, how much they achieve and how much they contribute," he added. "For these ideologues, anything short of the mass deportation of 11 million people is an amnesty."
The advocates have reason to be wary. Through the first two-and-a-half years of his White House tenure, Obama initiated a much tougher deportation policy than his GOP predecessor, George W. Bush. In fiscal year 2010, for instance, DHS removed more than 390,000 illegal immigrants — a record figure that trumped Bush's 2008 deportations by 23,000. Of the 390,000, more than 195,000 were convicted criminals — a 70 percent increase over Bush's 2008 criminal removals.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Friday that the new rules are a welcome change of direction.
"This is more than a good step," he said in a statement. "It is a giant leap toward sanity and the ultimate goal of fixing our broken immigration system once and for all."
Others aren't so sure.
Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which supports tougher immigration enforcement, said that, from a policy standpoint, the new policy ignores existing law and "demoralizes" the enforcement officers charged with rounding up undocumented people.
Additionally, Camarota said, the change could backfire on Obama politically by undermining the public's already shaky confidence in the government's ability — or appetite — to enforce the nation's immigration laws.
"He's vulnerable on this," he said.
Gutierrez argued Friday that it's conservatives who are vulnerable.
"A sustained fight on the immigration issue always brings out the worst in Republicans," he said. "So from a purely partisan political standpoint, a full throated debate about whether or not to deport DREAM Act students and the spouses of U.S. military is good politics for the president and the Democrats."
Even Camarota was quick to concede that immigration policy — as tendentious as it is in certain circles — won't "make or break" Obama's chances in the 2012 elections.
"You don't want to overstate the importance of any one thing," Camarota said, "because the economy is going to drive the election. Everyone knows that."