Why Obama’s Texas Trip Matters

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

For the fourth time in recent weeks, President Obama made a public dive into the national debate over immigration reform with a major policy address on Tuesday near the U.S. southern border in El Paso, Texas. White House aides hoped the visit demonstrated Obama’s commitment to dealing with the polarizing issue. “The most valuable commodity that exists in the West Wing is the President’s time, as you know,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. “And just look at how much time he’s dedicating to immigration reform.” But with Congress deadlocked on the issue, it’s not entirely clear what Obama hoped to accomplish in El Paso, beyond rallying support from Latinos, a key constituency.

The stakes are high, both for Obama and the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Latinos are now the nation’s largest minority group, and they will be a crucial voting bloc in battleground states like North Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida in next year’s presidential race. That partly explains the President’s rationale for visiting El Paso, a key point on the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s also why he’s engaged in increasingly vigorous outreach to Latino leaders in recent months.

Many have become unhappy with the Obama administration’s expanded deportations of undocumented immigrants. “The President says he cares about the pain and separation of families,” says Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino civil rights group. “On the other hand,” she adds, “it’s his administration that’s the key source of the pain.”

Obama acknowledged this tension Tuesday, telling the crowd, “I want to emphasize: we are not doing this haphazardly; we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.”

The President repeated his argument that his administration must execute the existing laws, and that the immigration debate must be led by Congress. Congressional Hispanic Caucus members have insisted that the President has the discretion to effectively halt the deportations of certain undocumented immigrants. There is a precedent, too: In 2007, President Bush ordered then-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff to defer the deportations of thousands of Liberians amid political unrest in their home country. But on Tuesday, Obama insisted, as he has in recent meetings at the White House. that his hands are tied. “I know some here wish that I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself,” he said. “But that’s not how a democracy works. What we really need to do is keep up the fight to pass reform. That’s the ultimate solution to this problem.”

Legislative action is no easy task. The Democrat-dominated 111th Congress wasn’t able to advance comprehensive immigration reform one step, and the Democratic Senate failed to pass the Dream Act, a measure that would have ultimately put more than a million undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship, last December. Bipartisanship is in short supply and Obama’s comments in El Paso didn’t exactly set the mood for collaboration. Though he name-checked a few Republicans in favor of reform, Obama mocked the party’s calls for ever-increasing border security, joking, “Maybe they’ll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat.” He said, “They’ll never be satisfied,” and chastised GOPers for the failure of the Dream Act.

So what did Obama propose Tuesday? “I will do my part to lead a constructive and civil debate on these issues,” he said, citing meetings he has held at the White House with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a handful of high-profile Latino entertainers. Ultimately, his conclusion was more campaign pitch than white paper. “I am asking you to add your voices to this debate – and you can sign up to help at whitehouse.gov,” he said. “We need Washington to know that there is a movement for reform gathering strength from coast to coast. That’s how we’ll get this done. That’s how we can ensure that in the years ahead we are welcoming the talents of all who can contribute to this country; and that we are living up to that basic American idea: you can make it if you try.”

The President’s Texas visit was significant for a few key reasons. First, it was another indication that he sees immigration reform as an important issue to a crucial constituency.  Second, it was a signal to congressional leaders about Obama’s legislative priorities going forward — if not in his first term, than in his second, if he wins one. Third, the visit is important because Texas, in part because of its rising Latino population, is a state that one day may offer Democrats electoral gains. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t carried the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. It’s unlikely to happen in 2012.

But for U.S. immigration policy itself, Obama’s outreach will mean little without legislative action. And activists like Murguia of the National Council of La Raza are not yet ready to give the President a passing grade on the issue. “The key,” Murguia says, “will be real follow-up.”

Updated at 6:13 p.m.