Obama at the Border: Will Enforcement Strategy Backfire with Latino Voters?

By Roberto Lovato

As President Obama spoke from the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso Tuesday, DREAM Act student Julieta Garibay wondered about another border – the one that stands between Obama and his re-election bid.

“How are we going to keep our dignity while voting for this man who is hurting our community so much?” asked Garibay, 30, a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. “He’s deported the most immigrants in history. His enforcement-only approach (to immigration reform) sounds just like the Republican approach. And he expects us to vote for him?”

The political strategy at the heart of Obama’s speech – appealing to Latino voters by lauding immigrants, while appealing to anti-immigrant voters by playing up record-breaking deportations and other punitive policies – has brought the Obama administration to the brink of Latino voter disaster.

For some, like Garibay, President Obama’s record on enforcement speaks louder than his words. Her response to his speech reflects what could become one of the greatest threats to his re-election bid: Latino disillusionment with Obama.

Against the backdrop of a big beige wall of solid rock and American flags flying in the heat of the desert surrounding El Paso, the President delivered a speech that tried to balance sounding tough, even militaristic, on crime and immigration while sounding compassionate toward immigrants themselves.

“Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history,” said Obama, adding, “The Border Patrol has 20,000 agents — more than twice as many as there were in 2004, a build-up that began under President Bush and that we have continued.”

Obama concluded by discussing the sacrifices made by DREAM Act students like Garibay. “And we should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents by denying them the chance to earn an education or serve in the military,” he said. “That’s why we need to pass the DREAM Act,” which would provide qualifying young people legal status and a path to citizenship.

But Obama’s actions — deploying armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents into the homes of terrorized children and families – could derail much of whatever good will his speeches foster.

Studies by the University of Syracuse and other institutions document that under the Obama administration, ICE has deported record-breaking numbers of immigrants.

No less important than the statistical reality are the less-documented effects on communities: fear, disappointment and growing anger among immigrants and non-immigrants alike. A barrage of daily images and stories of violent immigration raids on homes and workplaces is taking an effect on Latino neighborhoods throughout the country, neighborhoods teeming with potential Latino voters.

Following the announcement of the Osama bin Laden killing, polls showed a slight increase in pro-Obama sentiment among Latinos. At the same time, however, a recent poll by Latino Decisions, one of the country’s pre-eminent Latino polling organizations, found that Obama’s immigration policies could be costing him Latino votes. “Our April poll shows President Obama doing okay with an overall approval of 73 percent,” said Matt Baretto, pollster for Latino Decisions and a professor at the University of Washington. “However, he only has 41 percent of Latinos saying they are certain to vote for him.”

“Those drifting to vote from ‘certain’ to ‘not sure’ are people who say immigration reform is the number one issue,” Baretto added. “This is an issue that affects almost all Latino households because the overwhelming majority of Latinos are related to or know somebody who is an immigrant.”

Within the complex world of immigration politics, two issues have arisen as the litmus test for Obama’s commitment to immigrants: stopping the deportation of DREAM Act students like Garibay, and fundamentally altering or abolishing agreements between local police and federal immigration authorities such as the Secure Communities program in which the fingerprints of anyone arrested are sent to immigration authorities.

While the President stated in his speech that his administration has “increased the removal of criminals by 70 percent,” ICE records reveal that many of those arrested and deported under Secure Communities are non-criminals.

Obama’s ability to deliver on his promises will determine whether Latinos perceive him as a friend deserving of political support or the Commander in Chief of a war on immigrants, deserving of political protest. Following his El Paso speech, hundreds of DREAM Act students and their families converged on an Obama fundraiser in Austin to demand he stop deporting DREAM Act students immediately.

The day after Obama’s speech, the DREAM Act was reintroduced in Congress by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Representatives Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., plan to introduce a similar bill in the House.

But until the immigration system is changed, Latinos like the Garibay family face a constant threat of possible deportation and separation. If put in a position of having to choose between Republicans militarizing immigration policy and Obama militarizing immigration policy, some Latinos will likely choose neither, and stay home — not because they don’t care, but because they view the choice as an indignity.

“Many people feel deceived by Obama,” said Garibay. “My mom voted for Obama. So did many of family and friends. But since he hasn’t done anything but make our lives worse, some of them are starting to wonder who the Republican running against Obama is. Most of them are questioning if they even want to vote.”

Journalist Roberto Lovato writes for New America Media as well as other media outlets.

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May 12, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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