Obama immigration speech in Texas: a bald plea to Hispanic voters

The partisan tone of Obama's speech on immigration reform and the barbs he aimed at Republicans made it clear he was courting Hispanic voters whose support he will need in 2012.

Jim Young/Reuters
A boy listens to President Barack Obama speak on immigration reform at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas, Tuesday.

President Obama laid down a marker Tuesday for Hispanic voters: He will keep fighting for a reform of the US immigration system that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

Mr. Obama made the pledge in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border, in a speech that was ostensibly about a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. But in its partisan tone could be heard the stirrings of his 2012 reelection campaign.

Obama asserted that he had fulfilled the “borders first” requirement of Republicans, who have argued that comprehensive immigration reform cannot be considered until US borders are secure. He said that there are now more border patrol agents on the border than ever before, and that the border fence is now “basically complete.” And he detailed other measures, including a tripling of intelligence analysts working the border and a move to screen 100 percent of rail shipments heading south into Mexico, to intercept guns and money.

“So, we have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement,” Obama said, “But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goal posts one more time.”

Maybe Republicans will say we need a moat, he continued. “Or alligators in the moat,” he said, to laughter. “They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.”

The partisan tone of the speech was striking, but not unexpected. Obama recently announced his reelection campaign, and the Republican presidential field is taking shape. With the Hispanic vote highly prized, both parties are angling to make inroads – but it is Obama who has jumped out in front.

In 2008, Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, to Republican John McCain’s 31 percent. For Obama to win a second term, he needs to score big with Hispanics again. In several swing states – beginning with Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and North Carolina – the Hispanic vote could spell the difference between winning and losing for Obama.

So far, Latinos have expressed disappointment with the president’s record, and he has met with community stakeholders in recent weeks in an effort to make them feel, at a minimum, that they are heard. With the Republican Party in control of the House, it will be well nigh impossible to pass comprehensive reform, and probably impossible, too, to pass the Dream Act, which creates a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

But Democratic leaders in the Senate plan another vote at some point anyway on the Dream Act, if only to force the Republicans to vote on the issue again and drive a wedge between legislators and voters. Supporters of comprehensive reform are still smarting over the lack of progress in the early part of Obama’s presidency.

“Obama has been talking about immigration reform since the 2008 campaign, so another speech on the importance of immigration reform is nothing new,” says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle. “He promised to act on immigration reform when he had 60 seats in the Senate and a big majority in the House, but nothing got done. So another speech under the current divided government in Congress brings even less hope of actually moving forward on this issue.”

In the April 2011 ImpreMedia-Latino Decisions tracking poll, Obama maintained a 73 percent job approval rating among Hispanic registered voters, yet only 41 percent said they were certain to vote for Obama in 2012, Mr. Barreto notes. Further, when asked if the Democratic Party is doing a good job of outreach to Latinos, just 47 percent said yes, and 53 percent said no. But support for the GOP remains even lower, with only 21 percent saying the Republicans are doing a good job of reaching out to Latinos.

Barreto also questioned the Obama administration’s deportation of thousands of parents of US-born, American citizen children. “Giving a new speech at the border does not change [that] fact,” he said.

“I know that the increase in deportations has been a source of controversy,” Obama said. “But I want to emphasize: We are not doing this haphazardly; we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not just families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income. And as a result, we increased the removal of criminals by 70 percent.”

Republicans were not impressed by the president’s speech.

“The president has again called for amnesty for illegal immigrants without offering a single proposal to actually improve the security of our borders,” said Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Representative King said the Government Accountability Office has determined that only 15 percent of the Southwest border is under “operational control.”

“The time has come for real action, not words,” he said.

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