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Esther Cepeda: Strung along on immigration reform

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Esther Cepeda
April 12, 2014

CHICAGO -- The week’s award for truer words were never spoken goes to David Martin, who served as deputy general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security in the first two years of the Obama administration.

 Martin made a blunt observation to a New York Times reporter—one that made sense to everyone who has seen through President Obama’s immigration reform gambit designed to appease Hispanic voters.

 “It would have been better for the administration to state its enforcement intentions clearly and stand by them, rather than being willing to lean whichever way seemed politically expedient at any given moment,” Martin said. “They lost credibility on enforcement, despite all the deportations, while letting activists think they could always get another concession if they just blamed Obama. It was a pipe dream to think they could make everyone happy.”

 Martin’s comments appeared in a Page One news story about the number of unlawfully present immigrants without criminal backgrounds who have been deported despite the president’s request that DHS use discretion and focus on hard-core criminals.

 DHS’ inability to put a priority on drug dealers, gang members or actual terrorists while deporting red-light runners or those who misstep after overstaying a visa has been well-known for years. Yet the reason the Times article has been dissected, endlessly discussed and used to push the agendas of national immigrant advocacy organizations is that it puts Obama’s cynicism on display for all to see.

 Yes, Obama did step up deportations after he promised Latinos he’d find a way to offer relief while he negotiated a path-to-citizenship immigration reform. Yes, he did get miffed when activists, journalists and community leaders called him out on his inability to keep his promise, and he did scold them during White House meetings for publicly criticizing him.

 Time and again, the president did say he could not act unilaterally to legalize unlawfully present immigrants and then turned around, practically on the eve of his re-election, and granted deferred action to young people who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act and who, coincidentally, were active campaigners on Democrats’ behalf.

 And yes, he is once again responding to renewed calls to end deportations with his stock answers of, basically, “I can’t do anything about it” and “Blame the Republicans.”

 Obama did ask supplicants at recent White House meetings to shelve the anecdotes about the pain and suffering of deportation and families torn apart. Not because he doesn’t care, of course—he has told us so often how much he cares—but because it’s more productive to discuss strategy for legislating permanent relief. That at least was honest, if a bit cold.

 His presidential machinations to preserve favorability ratings among Hispanics have been on display for years, even if his disciples didn’t want to see them. And though every year Obama has gone on speaking tours during Hispanic Heritage Month to make clear that he cares about passing immigration reform, the president’s approval rating among Latinos is at an all-time low—52 percent, according to Gallup.

 But why it was ever so high—75 percent just one year earlier—is a mystery. As he was nearing the end of his first year in office, it was clear that the president’s governing agenda for year two and beyond did not put immigration on the map.

 I don’t blame the president for his inability to rally an obstructionist Republican Party toward a compromise on one of the most contentious issues of our time. Even Ronald Reagan, many have noted, would have a slim chance of passing another reform in today’s highly polarized climate.

 And most levelheaded people wouldn’t have blamed the president for focusing on repairing the economy and getting people back to work, if he would have just said so. Instead, he kept over-promising and under-delivering on immigration reform.

 Obama’s historic number of deportations and immigration reform failures will not be his enduring legacy. It will be how foolish his most ardent Hispanic supporters will forever feel knowing it took them so long to realize that the president has been stringing them along on the one issue that strikes at the heart of their dignity.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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