Obama’s Hispanic problem: President blames Congress in immigration debate

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Pro-immigration groups are pushing the White House to further loosen enforcement of immigration rules for more than 300,000 illegal immigrants, but reelection-minded administration officials are instead trying to redirect the advocates’ energy and frustration towards the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

On May 3, in a White House meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Congress, President Obama blamed Congress for the immigration-advocates’ frustrations. “The president was asked by the CHC members to consider a broad range of administrative options [but the president said] that the only way to fix what’s broken about our immigration system is through legislative action in Congress,” said a White House statement.

On Thursday April 28, Obama met with a group of Hispanic celebrities, and persuaded several to broadcast the same message. “We like to blame Obama for the inaction, but he can’t just disobey the law that’s written,” actress Eva Longoria told reporters as she left the White House.

That’s “not true,” said Benjamin Johnson, the executive director of the American Immigration Council, which supports large-scale conditional amnesties for illegal immigrants. “As a matter of law, there is really no question that the executive branch, the third branch of government, has enormous power how to interpret and implement law,” he said.

His group and others are pushing administration officials to recognize legal loopholes that would help many illegal immigrants stay in the country. “My hope is to get off the question of ‘Can they?’ to ‘Will they?” he said.

Not likely, says Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which is pushing to reduce legal and illegal immigration. Obama has already declared he won’t use regulatory changes to deliver an amnesty, because “somebody in the White House is connected to reality [and recognizes] it would be politically catastrophic for him,” he said.

Although Obama has quietly relaxed many rules, “what the [pro-amnesty] groups want is for him to issue a sweeping executive order or to grant a protective status to all Mexicans that would effect millions of people,” Krikorian said. “I don’t see how he can get away with that.”

Nationwide, the labor force has shrunk, yet 9 percent are unemployed and another 10 percent are underemployed in an economy while an estimated 7 million illegal immigrants hold jobs. Popular opposition to illegal immigration was high before the recession, and numerous state and local governments are taking actions to pressure illegal immigrants out of their jurisdictions. Rallied by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA and many other groups, popular opposition has pressured Congress to reject several amnesty bills that were strongly pushed by well-funded industry, Hispanic and liberal advocates during the last few years.

Illegal immigration is sharply opposed by critical voting blocs, including African-Americans and swing-voting, white, blue-collar workers.

But Obama’s 2012 reelection requires also needs a good turnout and lop-sided support among Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters. Their turnout is usually lower that that of African-American and white voters, and Obama’s polls in the community have slid down to the mid-50s. In 2008, Obama won the support of 67 percent of Latinos, bringing him a crushing victory in California and contributing to his narrow victories in South Carolina and Virginia.

Faced with this dilemma, Obama is hosting the White House events to bolster his ties to Hispanic leaders, and also to focus their anger on Republicans in Congress, without risking a blowback from white and Hispanic voters that oppose further immigration, said Krikorian. “This is more stringing-along the pro-amnesty people … just holding their hands and giving them the impression of activity,” he said.

On April 19, Obama welcomed a group of pro-immigration political and business allies, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their role “is incredibly important,” Johnson said, because Congress won’t throw itself into the immigration controversy “unless people like Bloomberg and the President lean into the issue.”

On April 28, Longoria and a slew of other Hispanic celebrities and media people were welcomed by Obama to the White House. The attendees including Longoria, L.A. radio host Eddie ‘Piolin’ Sotelo, and T.V. hosts Don Francisco of Univision and Jose Diaz-Balart of Telemundo. The attendees asked Obama to help slow the exit of almost 400,000 illegal immigrants from the United States – many of whom are targets for advertising on Hispanic media – but got little positive response. An official White House statement released after the event said the President “noted that the only way to fix what’s broken about our immigration system is through legislative action in Congress, and that he cannot unilaterally change the law.”

On May 3, Obama met with the Hispanic caucus at the White House, where he fended off more demands for additional relaxation of immigration rules.

The administration has already taken some action to relax the rules, Johnson said. It has focused deportation resources on criminals, pushed back against Arizona and other states that want to apply federal-like rules in their own states, and started investigating Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It has improved conditions for would-be migrants confined to short-term detention centers, and helped detainees in long-tern detention centers meet with lawyers who can find legal arguments to prevent their expulsion, he said.

But there’s much more that can be done by the White House, according to Johnson. It could reduce federal cooperation with overzealous sheriffs and local governments, increase detainees’ access to lawyers, direct federal adjudicators to broaden their definitions of “extreme hardship,” and inform people that fears of persecution in their home-countries can be grounds for stays, he said. The administration could halt deportation of people brought into the country as minors, he said. That rule-change could effect 300,000 to 600,000 people, he said, adding that “we don’t know how many, to be quite honest.”

“There’s a long list of what the administration can do,” he said. But “we are so far away from being able to have the conversation because the administration doesn’t want to talk” about its legal flexibility, he said.

The White House meetings with business leaders and Hispanic media celebrities may help shift the national conversation, he said. “The president was trying to make a really, really important point — that a group of famous and influential Latino voices can help Americans understand the issues of immigration in terms that are different from the angry rhetoric about immigration,” he said. That new conversation is doubly important, he said, since the death of Senator Ted Kennedy. He was the leader of the immigration-advocacy movement, he said, and “nobody has filled the void created by his death.”