Op-ed: The Obama-Romney Duel on Immigration


By Dan Schnur
Special to Calbuzz

When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney address the largest gathering of Latino political leaders in the country over the next two days, here’s what they won’t say: “I’m sorry.”

Romney won’t apologize to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) when he speaks to their annual convention in Orlando on Thursday, certainly not for condemning his opponents during the GOP primary campaign when they spoke in opposition to deporting senior citizens and preventing unauthorized immigrants from receiving financial support to attend college.

Obama, who is scheduled to speak Friday, is just as unlikely to express regret, neither for overseeing the largest expansion of the nation’s deportation program in recent history nor for his administration’s halfhearted and belated effort in pushing for immigration reform.

What will they talk about? Mainly each other. Obama will attack Romney and his fellow Republicans for opposing comprehensive immigration reform, but neglect to mention it was his own opposition to a critical guest worker proposal that helped kill landmark legislation sponsored by the late Ted Kennedy in cooperation with John McCain during Obama’s first year in the Senate.

Romney will vilify Obama for the poor economy and the high rate of unemployment in the Latino community, without acknowledging that he supports Arizona’s immigration law and that he spent the primary season advocating for policy reform based on the idea that undocumented immigrants would voluntarily leave the country.

A dreamlike state: The only other thing the two candidates will offer is dreams. More specifically, they are likely to promote competing versions of the DREAM Act, the much-debated legislation that would give some children the opportunity for legal status in this country.

Obama has long supported the original Act, which would create a path to citizenship for young people who came here without documentation but who attend college or join the military, but he has expended little effort toward its passage.

Romney may use his NALEO speech to endorse a compromise proposal by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, which would halt deportations of young people in those same categories and provide conditional permanent residency, but presumably (and quietly) maintain his opposition to the possibility of citizenship.

Obama will certainly trumpet last Friday’s announcement of a new Administration policy to provide residency for similar groups of young people as Rubio has called for in his plan. While there are differences between the way Obama and Rubio have approached the issue, they are relatively minor and could be negotiated in short order.

If Romney signs on with Rubio as well, the result will somewhat of a DREAM Act love fest, in which both candidates talk about their commitment to reform in this one very specific corner of the immigration debate. Both will speak expansively about the need to provide assistance to deserving young people, but scrupulously avoid the more politically difficult conversation about a much larger population of unauthorized residents.

For the past five years, ever since the death of the comprehensive Kennedy-McCain bill that offered the possibility of citizenship for all of the nation’s undocumented immigrants, the DREAM Act has been both a Band-Aid for and a distraction from the lack of progress on the question of broader immigration reform. Passage of either of the two DREAM Acts currently being discussed would represent an important step forward; however, neither is sufficient to address the larger and more critical question of how a nation that has built itself on the strength, creativity and courage of immigrants will resolve this festering crisis.

Those who understand that neither massive deportation nor the permanent existence of an illegal underclass is a satisfactory solution should recognize that a DREAM Act is a necessary emergency measure to protect deserving young people, but it is also a political panacea.

Both major candidates and their advisers have calculated that a decriminalization bill for college students and soldiers will placate both Latino and Anglo voters who care about this issue. But they also know that a series of high-visibility pronouncements on this specific matter will divert public and media attention from the larger challenge Americans deserve to have their next leader address.

What about real reform? Whether the result of a weak U.S. economy, an increased border presence, or a declining Mexican birthrate, the flow of northward migration into this country has all but stopped. That has removed the debate over immigration policy from the front pages, but does not in any way resolve the broader practical and moral questions that the current situation demands.

It is Obama’s responsibility to explain how and when he will devote more energy and political capital to the challenge of comprehensive immigration reform if re-elected.

It is Romney’s obligation to clarify his beliefs so we can better understand what he believes is a practical and conscionable alternative to a naturalization and legalization process.

Romney veered rightward during the primary to mollify one group of voters. Obama swung to the left last week to motivate another portion of the electorate. Both owe something more than election-year positioning and maneuvering — not only to Latino voters but to the rest of us as well.

Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He was the national communications director for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for former California governor Pete Wilson. A version of this piece appeared in La Opinion.

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  1. avatar Luis_Alvarado says:

    Dan, as usual you have a very well defined view of the current political landscape and how the players manuver in it. It certainly will be very interesting to see how the NALEO theater playes out. I hope that the NALEO members hold President Obama’s feet to the fire for using the Latino electorate as political pawns in his campaign chess board. I am also hopeful that Gov. Romney uses this opportunity to find a message that will resonate with the true interest of the Latino community, not just immigration policy.

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