The White House is urging lawmakers to back away from a campaign led by Hispanic Democrats to block deportations involving U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, a move that risks antagonizing Latino voters crucial to President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Several members of Congress who were scheduled to attend a March 31 news conference on the issue said administration officials contacted them to voice concern about their participation. Until U.S. immigration law is overhauled, the lawmakers say, Obama should use his executive power to protect families facing deportation or separation because at least one parent is an illegal immigrant.
“The staffers that are attached to us, the liaisons, they transmitted some concern,” said Representative Mike Honda of California, a former chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, referring to the White House legislative affairs office. “They would have loved us not to have gone to the press conference.”
Honda, a Japanese-American, attended with other officials, including Asian and black lawmakers, even after getting a call, because it’s “not only about Hispanics,” he said. “I want to broaden that so people don’t think just brown.”
At least three Democrats -- Representatives Honda, Judy Chu of California and Keith Ellison of Minnesota -- said they were contacted about the event. Representatives Yvette Clarke of New York and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who, like Ellison, are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, were scheduled to attend and didn’t, according to their offices. Neither Clarke nor Lee could be reached for comment.
‘Lessen the Pain’
“Not everybody who usually shows up, showed up,” Honda said.
The absences were noted by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “I heard some people got called,” said Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, a former president of the caucus. “I didn’t.”
The lawmakers are asking the White House “to make some administrative remedies to lessen the pain,” Grijalva said. “They see that as politically not healthy for them.”
Offering relief to illegal immigrants through executive fiat, and not legislation, could anger voters worried about the estimated 11.2 million undocumented residents in the U.S. It may also undermine Obama’s argument that he favors a comprehensive immigration overhaul through Congress.
No Legal Authority
“We regularly reach out to lawmakers to discuss immigration reform,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “Our focus continues to be on building bipartisan consensus around a legislative path that can produce comprehensive reform.”
The administration argues that it doesn’t have the legal authority to exempt certain immigrant categories from the law.
“With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case,” Obama said at a March 28 town hall sponsored by the Univision television network. “There are laws on the books that Congress has passed.”
Lawmakers, led by Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez, the first Hispanic member of Congress to endorse Obama for president in 2007, called the news conference last week to announce a 20-city tour to highlight the effect “our broken immigration system” can have in splitting up families. The tour began last weekend, with rallies in Providence, Rhode Island and Boston.
They’re also seeking help for those who would have been covered by the White House-backed Dream Act, which passed the House last year and was blocked in the Senate. It would provide permanent residency to college graduates and military veterans who arrived in the U.S. as children illegally.
With that legislation facing opposition in the new Republican-controlled House, some Democrats are urging Obama to stop deportation orders through administrative means.
“We want him to exercise the discretion that he already has,” said Gutierrez.
As of 2008, there were 4 million children in the U.S. who were citizens yet had at least one parent who wasn’t, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center.
“You don’t have to deport them, Mr. President, you can parole them in place,” Gutierrez said, previewing the argument he will make with Obama when they meet later this month to discuss immigration issues. “The goal is to say that the young people in the Dream Act should be paroled in place.”
Stop Expelling Talent
In his State of the Union address in January, Obama vowed to press for immigration reform while insisting he would need Republican support. Without mentioning the Dream Act by name, he said, “Let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.”
Hispanic voters played a key role in helping Obama get elected in 2008, giving him 67 percent of their support, according to Pew.
The challenge for Democrats in 2012 will be to keep those voters energized, as polls show their support for the party has softened, said Matt Barreto, a pollster at the University of Washington in Seattle.
A February survey by Latino Decisions, a research center focusing on Hispanic voting patterns, showed that 52 percent of registered Latino voters thought Democrats were doing a “good job” of reaching out to Hispanics, compared with 18 percent for Republicans.
“The Democrats are certainly doing a better job than Republicans,” said Barreto, “but that’s only 52 percent for the Democrats. That’s the bad news.”
“If it’s perceived that the White House is trying to hush up people for standing up for immigrants, that could have a significant backlash in 2012,” he said. “Latinos are not going to vote Republican for sure, but they aren’t going to be enthusiastic for the Democrats.”
Some lawmakers are also questioning what they perceive as a faulty political calculus by the White House and said they would continue to argue for an administrative fix for children of undocumented workers.
“There were calls made to us, but I decided to participate,” said Chu. “They have a disagreement with us. They feel that this is perhaps is not the direction for them.”
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