Commentary: Real change from Obama will require more courage
SAN DIEGO -- This being soccer season, it's appropriate that many Latinos see President Obama and the promise of immigration reform like Lucy and the futbol.
This week, in El Paso, Obama again pledged to fix a broken system but not without an assist from Republicans. And again, he bragged about cracking down on illegal immigration. We're a nation of immigrants, but also a nation of laws.
It's a song that Latinos have committed to memory, and they usually hear it whenever Obama speaks to Latino audiences on or near Mexican holidays. Happy belated Cinco de Mayo!
In a more honest rendition, Obama would acknowledge that, for Democrats, the utility of the immigration debate is to give Republicans a chance to alienate Latino voters.
Ten days before the speech, I was sitting in a pew in a barrio church in Los Angeles waiting for remarks by Rep. Luis Gutierrez. The Democratic congressman from Chicago has been urging the White House to develop a fairer and more humane immigration policy. To push this message, he went on a 20-city tour: "The Campaign for American Children and Families."
The tour kicked off with a news conference. Several congressional lawmakers, including Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., have said that administration officials called them beforehand to dissuade them from attending. Once the tour was under way, the White House scheduled a showy reception for Latino celebrities, possibly to distract the media.
There was no distracting the 150 or so angry people in the church. What angered them most were the deportations.
Barack Obama -- who once ?bemoaned when "communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing" -- is on track to deport more illegal immigrants than any U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower and "Operation Wetback" in 1954. That crackdown resulted in the removal of nearly 1 million people. The Obama administration deported about 800,000 people in its first two years.
I asked Gutierrez why he thinks Obama has developed a knack for deportations.
"He responds to the restrictionists," Gutierrez said. "If you hear the restrictionists, they say: 'We will win through attrition. Just enforce the law.' Well, every discretionary tool that this president has used helps them reach that goal."
And, in return, Obama gets to establish his credentials as a tough guy on illegal immigration in time to run for re-election.
"That gives him credibility on the immigration issue, he thinks, being the enforcement guy," Gutierrez said.
Inside the church, one person after another explained how their families were split apart. One woman said that since her husband was deported, she has had to hold down four jobs to support herself and her children.
As someone who believes that illegal immigrants should be deported, what concerns me is that Obama is being cynical and dishonest. For example, after suing Arizona over the principle that enforcing immigration law is the job of the federal government and not local or state law enforcement agencies, the administration is using those agencies as a force multiplier and scooping up illegal immigrants arrested by them to boost the deportation tally.
I wanted to know what troubles Gutierrez.
"What bothers me is that Barack Obama had the ability," he said. "He just didn't make it a priority and give it the importance that it deserved. And now that this opportunity has been lost, he doesn't use the wonderful powers that he has to ameliorate the situation. I'm not asking him to stop the deportations, just bring a little balance to it."
Gutierrez wants Obama to spare two groups of people with an executive power known as "parole-in-place" -- illegal immigrants who have U.S.-born children, and college students who might have qualified for legal status under the Dream Act.
Obama has refused to do either of these things, insisting that he lacks the legal authority to stop deportations. Two former general counsels of the Immigration and Naturalization Service disagree.
What Obama really lacks is nerve. It's an article of faith at the White House that nothing loses an election faster than being soft on illegal immigration. So the administration is extra hard.
That strategy wasn't lost on the people in the church, many of whom bought into Obama's promise of "change" three years ago. As I exited, on a table near the door, I noticed a handwritten sign with a message: "Mr. President, Real Change Requires Courage."
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.