Last week, President Obama dashed out West to court donors in Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Surely, he couldn’t help but notice the throng of protesters outside the $2,500-a-plate dinner at Sony Pictures’ Culver City, Calif., studios carrying signs that read, “Stop Deporting Dreams.” Against the backdrop of monumental demographic shifts, the protesters’ presence confronts the President, and both political parties, with a key question: How much longer will the immigration debate be viewed as an easily dismissed problem rather than an opportunity to be seized?
Since Obama’s arrival at the White House in 2009, nearly 1 million illegal immigrants have been deported –- almost as many as in George W. Bush’s entire second term. In wake of 9/11, the federal government built a massive, $17 billion apparatus to identify and expel illegal resident criminals, and the number of deportations soared from 117,000 in 2001 to nearly 400,000 last year. But only 196,000 of those deported in 2010 were individuals convicted of crimes in their home countries or the U.S. Much of the balance of those deported were relatives of American citizens born in this country.
In his State of the Union Address last January, the President said, “Let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses and further enrich this nation.” That came weeks after Democrats reluctantly supported the so-called Dream Act, a measure that would have put millions of illegal immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship or legal resident status. It failed to pass the Senate, despite months of debate. Advocates feel the issue has hit a wall. That’s why earlier this month, several groups, including the National Council of La Raza, lobbied nearly two dozen congressional Democrats to send President Obama a letter urging him to use his executive authority to halt the deportation of students who would be allowed to remain in the country under the Dream Act, if it was ever passed. So far, the Administration hasn’t given any indication they intend to go down that road.
This has put the Obama administration in a tricky situation. If the President blunts enforcement of the country’s immigration laws, he could be branded as soft on crime. But inaction will further alienate Latinos, now the nation’s largest minority group. Consider that in the last decade, Georgia’s Latino population has nearly doubled to 854,000, and North Carolina’s has more than doubled to 800,000. Latinos will be crucial in upcoming elections, not only in states like California, but battlegrounds like New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia.
The demographic shift raises an issue for Republicans too. Many new arrivals to the U.S. are deeply religious, family-oriented and hard-working, Republican consultant Whit Ayers observes, “which is a pretty good definition of a Republican in this age,” he says. And yet the GOP majority in Georgia’s legislature recently passed a measure that, like Arizona’s controversial law, requires local law enforcement authorities to check the immigration status of criminal suspects. Civil rights groups like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials have charged that Georgia is “legislating discrimination.” Ayers worries Republicans are being short-sighted. “Once Latinos register to vote,” he says, “it’s going to send shockwaves through the established political culture.”
But the most immediate problem is at the White House. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from the President’s hometown of Chicago, was among the few members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to support Obama early in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, when Obama was trailing Hillary Clinton among Latino voters in most polls. Ultimately, Obama captured about 67% of the Latino vote in the general election, according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center, and many Latinos hoped he would enact substantive immigration reforms. Part of Democrats’ slowness to deal with the issue, Gutierrez says, “is they don’t think Latinos have anywhere to go.” They’re unlikely to support Republicans. But in the 2012 election, Gutierrez says, “people may not show up at the polls. An important factor in every campaign isn’t always those who decided to vote.”
This month, Gutierrez kicked off a tour of more than 20 cities to try to stir the immigration debate in places like Phoenix and Los Angeles. Last week, he drew nearly 1,000 Latinos to a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, the city scheduled to host next year’s Democratic National Convention. Many in the crowd were disillusioned and anxious. “I want to support this President,” Gutierrez says, “but I’m going to stand with those broken families. We’re not asking him to stop deportations entirely. We’re asking, ‘Use your administrative power that’s been conferred to you, and don’t deport anymore Dream kids.’”