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Obama reignites immigration debate at US-Mexico border

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2011-05-11

In a speech delivered Tuesday near the US-Mexican border, US President Barack Obama revived the controversial debate over the future of an estimated 11 million immigrants who live in the US illegally.

In a speech delivered near the US-Mexican border Tuesday, US President Barack Obama blasted the Republican position on immigration and called on lawmakers to “put politics aside” and “find common ground” on reforming the country’s immigration system.

On his first trip to the border since becoming president, Obama said his administration had addressed Republican concerns over border security measures including increasing the number of border patrol agents.

“We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement,” Obama told crowd gathered in the Texan border town of El Paso. “But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goal posts one more time… Maybe they’ll say we need a moat,” said Obama to laughter from the audience. “Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied.”

Obama’s speech Tuesday capped weeks of meetings with high-profile Hispanic leaders and movie stars on the hot-button issue of addressing the fate of an estimated 11 million immigrants who live in the US illegally.

Passing comprehensive immigration reform was one of Obama’s key campaign promises. The president has said he favours creating a path for undocumented students and workers to gain citizenship, while strictly enforcing existing immigration laws.

But the US president’s attempts at immigration reform, such as a move to legalise some children of illegal immigrants, have been stymied in Congress, with a Republican majority House showing little inclination for any law that would open a path to citizenship for the country’s illegal immigrants.

In his speech Tuesday, Obama attempted to deflect his lackluster performance on immigration reform by stressing that the Republicans are responsible for blocking immigration reform initiatives and shifted responsibility away from himself.

“This change has to be driven by you to help us push for comprehensive reform, and to identify what steps we can take right now,” he told the crowd. “I am asking you to add your voices to this. We need Washington to know that there is a movement for reform gathering”

Rallying support

Amid criticism by immigration rights activists over what they say are harsh enforcement measures under the current administration, Obama has been hosting high-profile immigration reform meetings with stakeholders. At a White House reception last week on the occasion of the Mexican feast of Cinco de Mayo, Obama told influential Hispanics he needed their help fixing America’s “broken” immigration policy.

El Paso offered Obama a symbolic venue to set the tone on immigration for a national audience.

But after years of stalled legislation on immigration, and now facing a considerably less agreeable Congress than at the start of his mandate, Obama’s timing seems wrong. The president’s sudden interest in the politically divisive issue is being interpreted by some as little more than an attempt to charm Hispanic voters, a valuable constituency for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid.

Hispanic voters heavily shifted support away from the Republicans to vote for Obama in 2008. Nationwide, Hispanics voted 67% for Obama and 31% percent for Republican rival John McCain. A Pew Hispanic Center study released in April noted that the number of eligible Latino voters jumped to 21.3 million in 2010, up from 13.2 million in the previous census in 2000.

“The president has began his re-election campaign, courting the leadership of the Hispanic community who are disappointed with his inability to bring about the legislative changes necessary to give amnesty to the illegal immigrant population,” said Jack Martin, a spokesman Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a conservative group that advocates for a reduction in both legal and illegal immigration in the US.

Texas Dreaming

Speaking to graduating college students in Miami on April 29, Obama said he would “keep fighting alongside many of you to make the Dream Act the law of the land,” referring to a bill that would allow undocumented students who arrived in the US at a young age to remain in the country to continue their university studies or serve in the US Army.

The bill, which would require the students to prove they arrived in the US before their 16th birthday and have lived continuously in the US for at least five years, was passed by the House of Representatives last year, but was then shot down in the Senate.

In El Paso, Obama once more appealed to Congress to pass the so-called Dream Act. “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,” the president said.

However, according to FAIR’s Martin, any immigration legislation action is improbable. “Many of the new Republicans in the House of Representatives ran on campaigns opposing amnesty,” he explained.

Even to the president’s supporters, rallying behind the Dream Act seems like settling for far less than they expected when they voted for him. “[The Dream Act] is a good thing that would help thousands of kids, but it falls short,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the pro-immigration Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR). “It does not address the 11 million workers and taxpayers that are living in the shadows and need to be brought out.”

Whether any reform legislation moves forward, immigration will remain in key issue in domestic policy debates. If championing immigration legislation seems like a losing proposition for Obama, the incumbent still can’t afford to let Hispanic supporters think he has forgotten about them.

Date created : 2011-05-10

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