Obama bemoans Congress's inaction on immigration reform, too

It's not all about the debt ceiling. In a speech to the Latino community – a key voter bloc for 2012 – Obama on Monday blamed Republicans for blocking immigration reform at the federal level.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama waves as he prepares to walks off stage after delivering remarks at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) annual conference luncheon in Washington, on July 25.

President Obama’s impasse with congressional Republicans over the debt ceiling wasn’t far from thought Monday as he made a campaign-style speech to a key constituency, the Latino community.

Speaking to the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights organization in the US, Mr. Obama expressed regret over having to enforce deportation laws that split up families and deny educational opportunities to young people who immigrated illegally through no choice of their own.

“Now, I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own,” Obama said. “And believe me, right now dealing with Congress...”

The Obama-friendly crowd interrupted him with cries of “Yes you can! Yes you can!”

“Believe me,” he continued. “Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting.”

But, Obama quickly added, “That’s not how our democracy functions. That's not how our Constitution is written.”

Both in dealing with immigration laws he dislikes and in trying to reach agreement with congressional Republicans to raise the debt ceiling before the nation risks beginning to default on Aug. 2, Obama captured the frustration of governing in a system with checks and balances – and a sharp partisan divide on Capitol Hill.

In his address to the La Raza annual luncheon here in Washington, Obama highlighted the issue that is front and center to Americans of all races and ethnicities – jobs and the economy. Among Latinos, the unemployment rate is 11.6 percent, well above the overall national rate of 9.2 percent.

“I don't need to tell you Latino unemployment is painfully high,” Obama said, reminding the crowd that slow job growth and stagnant wages were problems before the recession hit.

Obama also blamed Congress for not approving bipartisan proposals – such as pending free trade agreements – that he says would help create jobs. “I’d appreciate if you all would help me convince them to do it,” he said.

But it was the immigration issue that got the crowd most fired up. As with the economy, Obama put the blame squarely on the Republicans’ shoulders. Five years ago, he noted, 23 Republican senators supported comprehensive immigration reform – a plan that would both secure America’s borders and establish a path to citizenship for those in the US illegally. Now, he says, “they’ve walked away,” and the nation is left with a state-by-state patchwork of laws that is unworkable.

As a presidential candidate, Obama had promised to address immigration reform during his first year in office, but that never happened. Since then, the Latino community had placed a lot of the blame on him and the Democrats for the stalled progress. But with a speech in May in El Paso, Texas, near the US-Mexican border, Obama began to fight back.

In the El Paso speech, “he really shifted the focus and put the blame on Republicans,” says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “In today’s speech, he went a little further by calling out the Republicans.”

Obama has scheduled regular events with the Latino community since taking office – White House conferences, speeches, a rare official presidential trip to Puerto Rico – in a clear effort to maintain support of the nation’s fast-growing Hispanic population, despite the lack of progress on issues most important to its members. Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008, and he hopes to match or even surpass that in 2012.

The latest impreMedia-Latino Decisions tracking poll, taken last month, showed Obama’s overall approval among Latinos at 68 percent, but on the immigraion issue it was only 48 percent.

The poll showed strong Latino support for executive action – 74 percent – to stop deportations of undocumented immigrants who are married to US citizens. Sixty-six percent support executive action to stop deportations of undocumented immigrants who are eligible to take part in the DREAM Act, the proposal that would grant permanent residency to certain illegal immigrants who arrived in the US as minors and who fulfill educational or military requirements.

On Monday, Obama’s wishing-out-loud that he could just, in effect, wave his magic executive wand and pass these policies may have brought him big applause, but it also ramped up hopes that perhaps it’s an approach he could legally try.

“He was trying to use that as an opportunity to make a joke about the debt ceiling,” says Mr. Barreto. But regarding immigration laws, “people actually want him to do this. That was a bit of dangerous territory for him.”

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