President Obama told a Spanish-language television network, in an interview that will be aired this Sunday, that he would try to pass comprehensive immigration reform “in the first year of my second term.” When running for President in 2008, then-Senator Obama said basically the same thing, promising to tackle immigration reform in his first year in office. That never happened, as health care and the economy dominated the first year of policymaking. The President supported a late-stage effort to pass the DREAM Act, an incremental reform for undocumented students, but that failed in the lame duck session in 2010.
Since that time, the President told Univision’s Al Punto program, he has been stymied by a Republican Party no longer interested in immigration reform and increasingly hostile toward immigrants. Here’s what Obama told Univision’s Enrique Acevedo, in an interview that will air while he appears at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia:
Acevedo: Mr. President, excuse the personal note, but I grew up in a generation that has lived with the unfulfilled promise of immigration reform, and I’m not that young. And do you think if you are reelected you will be the President that gets it done? And can you promise you’ll do it within the first year of your second term?
Obama: I can promise that I will try to do it in the first year of my second term. I want to try this year. The challenge we’ve got on immigration reform is very simple. I’ve got a majority of Democrats who are prepared to vote for it, and I’ve got no Republicans who are prepared to vote for it. It’s worse than that. We now have a Republican nominee who said that the Arizona laws are a model for the country; that — and these are laws that potentially would allow someone to be stopped and picked up and asked where their citizenship papers are based on an assumption.
Acevedo: Racial profiling.
Obama: Very troublesome, and this is something that the Republican nominee has said should be a model for the country. So what we need is a change either of Congress or we need Republicans to change their mind, and I think this has to be an important debate during — throughout the country. What I’ve said to Latinos across the United States is that my passion for this issue is undiminished; that when it comes to, for example, the Dream Kids who have been raised as Americans and see themselves as Americans and want to serve their country or are willing to work hard in school and start businesses or work in our laboratories and in our businesses, it is shameful that we cannot get that done. And so I’m just going to keep on pushing as hard as I can, and what I’m going to be encouraging is the Latino community continue to ask every member of Congress where they stand on these issues, but the one thing that I think everybody needs to understand is that this is something I care deeply about. It’s personal to me, and I will do everything that I can to try to get it done. But ultimately I’m going to need Congress to help me.
The President has wide leads among Latino voters in all polling, and this promise to work on immigration reform in 2013 fits with that. But it also may call up for Latinos the broken promise from 2008.
If anything has kept the President’s standing among this population afloat, it has been the demonization of immigrants coming from the other side. So it’s no surprise that he focused on that in his remarks. Mitt Romney got through the primaries in part by being the most right-wing candidate in the field on immigration. He handily vanquished Rick Perry based in large part on the Texas Governor’s support for in-state tuition assistance for undocumented students, and he has said he would veto the DREAM Act.
Romney’s campaign fired back on this, calling it an election-year ploy:
“President Obama only talks about immigration reform when he’s seeking votes, Henneberg said in an email to The Hill. “Then-candidate Obama promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year. More than three years into his term, America is still waiting for his immigration plan.” [...]
“As governor, Mitt Romney fought to protect legal immigration by working to end illegal immigration,” she said. “He will do the same as President by fixing and improving our broken immigration system, respecting those who are waiting patiently to come here legally, and finally ending illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner.”
There’s plenty of merit to the first part of the Romney spin, but the second half will simply alienate the same voters potentially receptive to the message that Obama has provided empty promises on immigration. An editorial by Fred Barnes in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Romney’s “private view of immigration isn’t as anti-immigrant as he often sounded” on the campaign trail. I don’t think that immigration reform advocates will take those “private thoughts” to heart.
Nor are they likely to put faith in another promise to tackle their top-priority issue in the beginning of the second term, either.