Remember the message of that Who classic, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”? Many immigrant rights activists apparently don’t, because if they did they would not have praised President Obama last week for once again talking – rather than acting – in furtherance of immigrant rights.
After promising to fight for comprehensive immigration reform during his 2008 campaign, Obama avoided the issue in 2009 despite Democrats controlling large Congressional majorities. Under pressure in 2010, he tried to revive the issue after the political opening had passed. Now, facing re-election, Obama gave a May 10 speech at the southern border city of El Paso backing immigration reform last week that was praised by activists as “bold” and “showing great political courage.”
But it took no courage for the President to give another speech supporting a cause that his Latino base strongly backs. Obama could show political courage by taking executive action to stop his administration from continuing to deport more immigrants than any other President; but taking concrete steps to help undocumented immigrants is something Obama refuses to do.
I have great admiration for those working in the trenches for comprehensive immigration reform. After the high hopes following the 2008 elections brought no progress, and even a reversal of momentum, the current political dynamic is disheartening.
But let’s not forget who’s to blame for this lack of progress.
President Obama did not want to move the immigration reform issue in 2009 when Democrats had big Congressional majorities and a political headwind behind them because. He didn’t even want to talk about immigration reform at a time when enacting a path to legalization for eight to twelve million residents had its best chance.
In 2009, activists understandably trusted the President’s commitment to immigration reform. But given that he did nothing to pass legislation when it was politically possible, and instead has made the Bush deportation policies look like the good old days, activists sound politically naïve in praising Obama for giving another supportive speech.
A Far Cry from the UFW
Among those praising Obama’s speech was SEIU Executive Vice-President Eliseo Medina, one of the key figures in building the nation’s immigrant rights movement. Medina got his start with Cesar Chavez and the UFW, and no doubt recalls how the farmworker leader toured the state in 1975 bashing new Governor Jerry Brown for not implementing his 1974 campaign promises to create an agricultural labor relations act.
In response, Brown soon signed the nation’s first law granting farmworkers labor rights. It took action, not promises alone, to insulate him from UFW pressure.
Chavez and the UFW always held politicians accountable, even those they helped elect and those whom – like Brown – Chavez had a close personal relationship. Yet Medina responded to Obama’s May 10 speech by claiming it showed “great political courage.” He also said “President Obama is to be commended for leading a forthright discussion on one of the more vexing issues facing our nation: immigration reform. By keeping attention on the issue and uniting divergent interests from across the political spectrum, the president is challenging the nation to set aside divisive politics and find real solutions.”
Both SEIU and Medina have been remarkably uncritical of a President who failed to deliver on labor’s top priorities, and who barely made an effort around labor law reform or immigration. And the reason becomes clear from Medina’s closing words:
“The question remains: When are the Republicans going to quit stalling and start finding solutions that the public is demanding? We are ready to work on it for the sake of our economic and national security and for the American people.”
In other words, Obama’s speech was all about the 2012 elections. It was used by Medina and others to remind Latino voters that Democrats support immigrant rights and Republicans do not.
But there is another question that remains, which Medina does not address: When are the Democrats going to quit stalling and start finding solutions to immigration that the public is demanding? Obama Administration inaction opened a wide political door for anti-immigrant state laws, and to this day the President is not stopping deportations or using his executive authority to show that he supports immigrants rights.
Unfortunately, Medina’s praise for Obama’s speech was typical of immigrant rights leaders. Marissa Graciosa, Director of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, said “it’s no small thing when the President shines the spotlight of his office on an issue. And the President today certainly added a tone of humanity and reality when he said, ‘We are a better nation’ than one that deports people who have no other home than America.’”
Gracisosa and FIRM have criticized Obama’s deportation policies, but have not escalated their demands for change as community organizers customarily do when polite appeals fail.
The result: Obama feels no obligation to suspend deportations – which actually would be a politically courageous act – since he can be commended merely for telling political supporters that he supports comprehensive reform.
Immigrant rights activists understandably want Latino voters to support Obama and other Democrats over anti-reform Republicans. But leading cheers for Obama while he refuses to stop or even limit deportations sends a message that Latino votes can be won on the cheap, weakening rather than building Latino political power.
A politician can use campaign promises to win constituency support— once. But once their words are not matched with actions — and Obama has actually worsened the plight of undocumented immigrants through increased deportations and new state measures justified by federal inaction — those who trusted Obama’s commitment to immigrant rights in 2008 should not let themselves be fooled again.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, as well as The Activist’s Handbook.