Obama will tout immigration on Latin America visit

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama is slated to fly to a series of Latin American diplomatic meetings on Thursday and Friday, which he will use to tout cross-border trade and the Senate’s pending immigration rewrite.

“Our relationship with the countries in Central America is vital … and it is certainly not limited at all to the matters of immigration reform in this country,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

However, he added, “you can expect he’ll talk about it, because it’s very topical here in the United States, and it is of interest to countries in the region.”

Starting Thursday morning, the two-day trip will send the president first to Mexico, where he will meet with President Peña Nieto. He will fly the next day to Costa Rica, where he will meet with regional leaders and the country’s president, Laura Chinchilla Miranda.

“The trip will be an important chance to discuss our collective efforts to promote economic growth and development in Central America and our ongoing collaboration on citizen security,” Carney said. (“Citizen security” is the White House’s term for a series of regional law-enforcement programs.)

But the trip also underscores Obama’s efforts to bind Latino immigrants to the Democratic party. In November 2012, the president won 70 percent of the Latino vote — despite a lousy economy that saw a 44 percent loss of wealth [pdf] among Latino households — by repeatedly showing his support for Latino groups and redistribution policies aimed at the immigrant Latino population.

Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Plouffe, said that the strongest group of supporters in 2012 for Obamacare were Latinos.

“The bigger problem [Republicans] have got with Latinos isn’t immigration. It’s their economic policies and health care,” he told the New York Times Magazine. “The group that supported the president’s health-care bill the most? Latinos.”

Carney’s description of the Latin American trip reflects that domestic political priority.

“This trip is an important opportunity to reinforce the deep cultural, familial and economic ties that so many Americans share with Mexico and Central America,” he said Friday.

On Monday, Obama met in the White House with a group of U.S. Latino advocates to discuss the pending trip. He told them that “immigration reform continues to be a top legislative priority this year,“ and that “he is looking forward to talking with Latin American leaders about our vision for the Americas as a region of shared opportunity,” said a White House statement.

The invited Latino activists included the heads of La Raza, Fundación Azteca America, MALDEF and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The trip also provides a way for Obama to tout the immigration bill as a foreign policy boost.

Throughout the immigration debate, Obama has tried to keep a low profile, partly at the behest of the eight senators now pushing the immigration rewrite.

Polls show that conservatives are more likely to oppose the bill if it seems to be his work. The public is also skeptical of his immigration priorities.

An early April poll by CNN showed Obama’s policy on immigration is backed by only 44 percent of voters, down from 51 percent in January. The CNN poll showed 50 percent disapproval, up from 43 percent in January. (RELATED: More on the poll)

That’s bad new for Obama, whose other top legislative priorities — a gun-control bill and a tax increase — have been stymied in the Senate and the House.

Obama has used other high-profile events to push the immigration bill.

Last week, he used his speech at the opening of President George W. Bush’s library to advance the bill.

“Seven years ago, President Bush restarted an important conversation by speaking with the American people about our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” he said.

“Even though comprehensive immigration reform has taken a little longer than any of us expected, I am hopeful that this year — with the help of [House] Speaker [John] Boehner and some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today — that we bring it home for our families, for our economy, for our security and for this incredible country that we love,” he said.

The bill’s backers say they’re pleased the president is keeping some distance from the bill.

“He has expressed his public support of it and at the same time, he has not tried to dictate the terms of it. … His role has been extremely appropriate,” Sen. John McCain said last week at a D.C. press breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

“I would describe his role as just about perfect,” added Sen. Chuck Schumer, the leader of the eight-senator group. “He importuned us to act … but then gave us the space to come up with the proposal.”

The pending bill, released April 18, provides green cards for at least 33 million people, including 11 million illegals, by 2024, according to an estimate by NumbersUSA, an advocacy group that wants to reduce the rate of immigration.

The bill would also provide green cards to many foreign professionals, and annually provide temporary visas for more than 1 million blue-collar workers and professionals.

Roughly 20 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed.

Obama “is playing the role exactly right,” Schumer added on April 25.

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