SAN DIEGO — There was only one acceptable response from President Obama when he was grilled over his immigration policies by Univision’s Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas: “Lo siento” (I’m sorry).
Instead of going on the defensive and retreating into his usual fantasy world where he and his administration do no wrong, and where it’s those dastardly Republicans who prevented him from keeping his promise to make immigration reform a top priority, Obama should have offered up a mea culpa.
The president has made a mess of things. He broke campaign promises and, more importantly, broke up hundreds of thousands of families by deporting parents, and placing their U.S.-born children on this side of the border in foster care so that other people could raise them.
He did all this not — as some of his supporters argue — to lay the groundwork for comprehensive immigration reform. He did it to score points with conservatives and win back independents by trying to prove that he heard their concerns about illegal immigration, and that he was tough enough to address them. And he did it to please two vital elements of the Democratic Party’s base: African-Americans and organized labor, both of whom claim that illegal immigration takes jobs away from U.S. workers and keeps wages low.
But his immigration policies got away from him. He let the genie out of the bottle by doing on a federal level what Arizona has done on a state level — namely, rope thousands of local police officers into the enforcement of federal immigration law.
The program, Secure Communities — which was started under the George W. Bush administration — was put it into overdrive by Obama with the goal of expanding it nationwide by 2014. By forcing local police to act as surrogates for immigration agents, the administration was able to round up and deport more than 1.5 million people. But it also eliminated police and prosecutorial discretion and ensured that people who years ago might have been left alone — for instance, victims of domestic violence — were arrested and deported.
Obama is not a bad person. But when it comes to immigration, and the pain inflicted on the Latino immigrant community in this country, he’s been a bad president.
You’ll never hear any contrition for this, from Obama or his surrogates. It’s not in the president’s DNA to accept responsibility for his excesses, mistakes or failures.
When pressed by Ramos and Salinas about his failures on immigration, Obama trotted out all the old and familiar excuses, justifications and half-truths that he and his surrogates have used for the last two years to explain away their policy of “broken promises, broken families.”
This included the assertions that have already been discredited, like the claim that most of those who were deported had criminal convictions. Not so.
But what really was outrageous was when Obama blamed Republicans — including Sen. John McCain, who had to slug it out with members of both parties to get a hearing for the bill he co-authored with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy — for the fact that as president, he didn’t even propose an immigration reform bill to Congress. These are the same Republicans who were in the minority for the first two years of his tenure, and couldn’t have stopped immigration reform if they wanted to.
And this is the same Barack Obama who, while in the Senate in 2007, joined four other Democrats in proposing “poison pill” amendments intended to kill immigration reform by peeling off — at the behest of organized labor — essential language calling for temporary guest workers. Without that language, Republicans withdrew their support. And because Democrats weren’t unanimous, the bill died.
When Congress debated immigration reform during the Bush administration, 20 Senate Republicans voted in favor of a proposal to legalize the undocumented. Why? It’s because business loves immigrant workers, and Republicans love pleasing business. The real obstacle to immigration reform has always been Democrats who — despite their “fool-me-once, fool-me-twice” rhetoric aimed at Latinos — love nothing more than pleasing organized labor.
It’s time to exit fantasy world. These are the realities underlying the immigration debate, even if President Obama will never admit them.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .