President Obama knows it. It's quite simple. If his Republican opponent in 2012 gets at least 40 percent of the Latino vote his reelection is in jeopardy. Therefore, no one should be surprised that he used his State of the Union address to portray himself as the champion of immigration reform.
Let’s be clear: immigration is not the most important issue for Latino voters, but they will reject a candidate that is not willing to show leadership to try fixing our dysfunctional immigration system. Obama understands this well. As he stressed in his speech: “I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.“
The problem with the president’s rhetoric is that it doesn’t match his actions. For the past two years he has basically ignored the immigration issue, even though he had promised the Latino community that he would tackle this issue the first year of his administration. Just consider that in last year’s State of the Union he said the same thing he said now and he did nothing to seriously address the issue.
Why didn’t he advance an immigration bill when his party controlled the two Houses of Congress? He didn’t think twice before pressing Congress to pass the massive $780 billion dollar so-called “stimulus” bill that only expanded the size of government and substantially contributed to the deficit. Nor did he waver when lobbying for his unpopular health care bill.
The reality is that these were priorities for him. Immigration simply isn’t. Why should Latinos believe that it is a priority for him now?
Since being elected, the president has rarely talked about immigration and, when he has, it normally is to blame Republicans for supposedly being the party of “no.” What, we should ask, have they said no to? The White House has never presented them with a formal proposal nor have they ever been seriously consulted on the issue.
There was, of course, the White House's failed attempt to pass the Dream Act, but even this was not a serious effort. It was introduced at the last minute –during the lame duck session—and once again without consulting the Republican leadership or allowing them to present amendments. No wonder the majority of them – plus five Democrats – voted against letting the bill go to the floor for an up and down vote.
The false promises of the 2008 election as well as political ploys of these past years have not gone unnoticed by Latinos. They are realizing that Democrats are just pandering to them and they are understandably upset at them.
The administration is aware of this and, as they begin to look at 2012, they know they need to regain the trust of Latinos voters to win another four-year term. They haven’t forgotten that the President won in 2008 because he dominated the minority vote by a 3 to 1 margin. While McCain got 58 percent of the white vote, Obama got 68 percent of the Latino vote.
Their strategy to win over Latinos is not merely to begin talking about immigration again. The other part of it is to demonize Republicans and portray them as anti-immigrant and as the “enemies” of Latinos, to use the President's own words. To accomplish this they will follow their Dream Act playbook, which, as we have said, is to avoid constructively engaging Republicans on the issue and to do everything possible to antagonize them so they end up opposing any legislative attempt.
The only way, however, that Latinos will buy the Democrats’ demagoguery is if Republicans just cross their arms and decide not to do anything constructive on immigration. That’s why the GOP leadership in the House and Senate should call the Democrats’ bluff and pro-actively propose specific solutions to the immigration crisis that go beyond enforcement-only measures, like the creation of a sensible guest worker program.
If they do this, Obama’s effort to “divide” the country by minority groups to “conquer” them politically will collapse. And it will show that despite all his touting on immigration, he’s really not committed to meaningful action on this issue. Moreover, it will give Republicans the opportunity to demonstrate to Latinos that the majority of them are not narrow minded restrictionists, and giving them a real shot at winning enough Latino votes to win back the White House.
Alfonso Aguilar is the Executive Director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.