Obama seeks Hispanic votes, carefully

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House needs Hispanic support to win in 2012, and is carefully rolling out a strategy intended to mobilize Latino voters without also igniting a push-back by the huge population of American voters who have been hit hard by the recession and place some blame on the current immigration policy.

If done carefully, the strategy “may add 500,000 [Hispanic] voters” to Obama’s polls in 2012, said Steve Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C. Those voters could help him in swing-states such as Colorado and Florida, he said, and “that’s nothing to sneeze at.”

Senior administration officials road-tested the strategy’s themes in a Monday background briefing with numerous reporters. Reporters asked officials about the administration’s campaign strategy and about immigration’s impact on low-skilled Americans, whose wages, some believe, have been forced downwards by international competition and domestic immigration.

In turn, cheap foreign labor has reduced companies’ willingness to develop or buy high-tech, labor-saving investments such as fruit-picking machinery and product-shelving robots in grocery stores. That’s the alternative economic strategy adopted by Japan’s government, which has restricted immigration, kept salaries high, and funded the development of productivity-boosting robots.

In the 30-minute briefing, officials also repeatedly told reporters that President Barack Obama wants to “elevate” the discussion, and to have a “civil” debate. But Republican election-experts, as well activists who believe lower immigration level would benefit Americans, expect the administration plans to use surrogates and the Hispanic media to paint opponents of immigration as bigots. The charge of bigotry will persuade some swing-voting Hispanics to rally behind the Democrats, just as it has done in numerous elections, said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which wishes to scale-back immigration levels.

President Obama is the central figure in the campaign strategy. Today, he is expected to offer a vague framework for “comprehensive immigration reform” at a speech alongside the Mexican border, in El Paso, Texas. “We’ll be releasing a blueprint of both why we need to get this done, and what the president’s policy is,” said a senior administration official said yesterday.

In 2008, Obama won nearly 70 percent of votes cast by Mexican-American citizens, but did little to pass an amnesty bill in 2008 and 2009.

The vagueness of the president’s forthcoming plan is a political plus for Democrats, said Camarota. By offering only a vague framework, nor a realistic compromise, “he doesn’t have to worry about a serious backlash” from dismayed working-class voters or from disappointed leaders of Hispanic and progressive interest-groups, he said. A real bill “would blow up in his face,” he said.

Administration officials said the president would highlight efforts to push down illegal-immigration, and would reject the immigration-control advocates’ calls for a strategy of immigration enforcement prior to a later reform of visa rules once the economy has reduced unemployment. Enforcement and immigration “are both important for our country, so it is time now to take up [both in] the immigration reform issue,” said an administration official.

Under the rules set by the White House, none of the officials can be named.

A grand compromise would be possible if the leaders of Hispanic ethnic-interest groups were willing to abandon their dream of importing more Hispanic constituents for their services, Camarota said. “An amnesty for some trade on [proper] enforcement is possible… [Obama] might be willing to go for it, but the progressive parts of the Democratic Party are not willing to go for it,” he said.

Without real progress on enforcement, Congress can’t approve any amnesty, especially if the Senate is controlled by a Republican majority in 2012, he said.

In the briefing, the senior administration officials tried to recast the debate away from competition for jobs. They advocated for a “comprehensive immigration reform” that would allow the redeployment of police and intelligence resources away form immigration-enforcement, and the import of workers to raise consumption, to fill labor shortages, to create new companies and to spur research. “Immigration reform is pro-growth and always has been,” said one official.

“It makes little economic sense for us to train and educate the top [high-skill] entrepreneurs and job-creators of the next generation and this generation, and then send, force, them to leave to compete against us and create jobs elsewhere that could be creating jobs right here,” he said.

Universities are major backers of easing immigration rules because they want to offer prospective foreign students the promise of a degree and a green-card in exchange for tuition payments. High-tech companies also want to import foreign-high tech-workers, partly because the salaries of U.S. tech-workers are comparatively high. In 2008, the employees of universities and high-tech companies led the list of donations to the Obama campaign.

The administration officials touted reports by the Congressional Budget Office that said immigration would spur the economy more than it would boost welfare spending. Rival studies by groups such as the Heritage Foundation offer long-term forecasts that show much higher costs than benefits.

Officials were reluctant to discuss the impact of immigration on American low-skilled workers. The unemployment rate for African-Americans and whites that did graduate from high-school is at least 15 percent, compared to roughly 6 percent for college-graduates. “The people who compete with immigrants for jobs have done horrifically in the recession,” said Camarota.

When asked by TheDC how immigration might impact those workers, who were the foundation for the Democratic Party’s success from the 1930s to 1980, a senior administration official offered a 347-word answer that said high-skilled immigrants would create jobs and that low-skill workers would be aided by federal welfare and education projects. “Thanks for the question… Of course our country should be doing everything we can to help those with lower incomes and lower educational opportunities have greater chances,” the official said. “That’s why the president fought so hard in December to get an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit, in the child tax-credit for low-income families… [and] to have the community college and other educational experiences that give them the chance to compete in the workforce,” the official said.

Low-skill workers “who have the most at stake are the least likely to be active” if the immigration controversy is kept by the media within the Hispanic community, said Camarota. “The people who claim to represent them – labor unions, progressive politicians – have decided that the [workers’] issues are trumped by concern for illegal immigrants.”