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Obama Turns To Border Politics In Texas Visit

President Obama plans to pivot this week from foreign affairs and the targeted killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden to a domestic issue that continues to bedevil his administration: comprehensive immigration reform.

Or the lack thereof.

Given the expectations preceding the president's scheduled speech Tuesday in El Paso, Texas, on immigration reform and border security, a comprehensive overhaul appears as elusive as the Sept. 11 mastermind proved to be.

Politicos — even those in the president's own party — are largely ignoring the Texas messaging effort, and Hispanic leaders are taking what can charitably be described as a wait-and-see attitude.

"Latinos see the disjunction between the rhetoric and the reality of what the administration is saying about immigration, and what they're doing about immigration," says Sylvia Manzano, a political science professor at Texas A&M University.

"He brought up reform; he campaigned on it," she says, yet the situation has, in many ways, worsened under his watch.

Bipartisan congressional efforts have hit dead ends, hung up in large part on how or whether the estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally should be offered a path to citizenship.

States such as Arizona and Indiana have been taking immigration enforcement into their own hands. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced Monday that she plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling barring some of the more controversial aspects of her state's new immigration law.

And the administration's stepped-up deportation efforts have both angered Latino groups and been dismissed as too little by critics like Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

"The president is going to El Paso to engage in political theatrics," Stein asserts. "It's a cynical attempt to drive a wedge between the Hispanic voter and the rest of America."

Ethnic Politics

Obama's renewed engagement on immigration reform is destined to be seen through a political lens.

In the weeks since he announced he would run for re-election, the president has met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He held a White House meeting with what even some Latino critics characterized as a "celebrity brigade" that included actress Eva Longoria. More events are planned this month.

Last week, the Justice Department's civil rights division sent a letter to schools reminding them that children are entitled to a public education no matter the citizenship or immigration status of their parents. And the department also recently moved to suspend the deportation of an illegal immigrant in a same-sex relationship recognized by a legal civil union in New Jersey.

"This is a massively political issue," says Stein, whose organization advocates for significant reductions in immigrants allowed into the country, including the elimination of what critics refer to as "chain immigration" that allows, for example, family reunification in the United States.

"I don't think there's a possibility for any bipartisan agreement because there's no communication going on between the two sides," he says. "The entire immigration debate has come to a screeching halt."

Glimmer Of Hope

At the liberal Center for American Progress, immigration expert Angela Kelley writes that she sees an opportunity for the president to "present a careful assessment of what more is needed" to ensure a "functional border" and sound immigration policy.

The center in the past has estimated that it would take $300 billion and 200,000 buses to undertake mass deportation of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

She and other advocates for reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants have been pointing to a recent Pew Research Center poll that showed 72 percent of those surveyed favored such a path.

According to Pew, Americans of all political persuasions — with the exception of staunch conservatives — favored the notion that illegal immigrants who "pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs" be given an opportunity to work toward citizenship.

Staunch conservatives were sharply divided, with 49 percent endorsing a path and 49 percent opposed.

Opponents of such a path call it tantamount to amnesty and have resisted efforts to move on reform until the border is secured. Kelley and others argue that securing the border, an inherently difficult and imperfect undertaking, should not be a prerequisite to reform.

The same Pew poll also showed overwhelming support for stronger enforcement of immigration laws, even among those surveyed whom Pew identified as "solid liberals."

Democrats' Problem

But another measure that Democrats have been closely watching is the softening of Latino support not just for Obama but for the Democratic Party as a whole.

Though nearly 70 percent of Latinos call themselves Democrats, according to Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm, only 38 percent say they find the party "very welcoming" to Latinos.

In recent days, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called for a moratorium on the president's "Secure Communities" deportation effort, asserting that it has strayed from its stated intent of targeting illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes.

In 2008, 67 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, and 31 percent voted for the GOP presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Manzano, the Texas A&M professor, said that she sees the soft Hispanic support as more problematic in 2012 for down-ballot Democrats than for the president.

"I don't think this is specifically about President Obama," she said. "But there's a long-standing relationship with the Democratic Party, which has not been particularly responsive or attentive to Latinos."

She noted that Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House last year when the DREAM Act failed. The legislation would have provided children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship through college or the military.

"Today, I don't know that Barack Obama has a strong opponent," she says. "Given where we are, Obama is not the one who needs the Latino votes."

But, she says, if Latinos don't come out to vote for president next year, they're also not coming out for Senate, House, state legislature and county commissioner races, either.

Though the president will have an interested audience for his speech Tuesday, the prospect that immigration reform will move forward in any appreciable way under his current watch is unlikely.

But then, most Americans had, as of last year, pretty much given up hope that the terrorist who had eluded capture for nearly a decade after he masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks would ever be found.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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