The political issue Republicans would like to see go away won’t anytime soon, with the Supreme Court set to rule on the tough, GOP-backed Arizona immigration law this week and President Barack Obama focusing on pressing his advantage with Hispanic voters.
Obama and Mitt Romney sparred last week during speeches to Latino elected officials in Florida. But the presumptive Republican presidential nominee continued to struggle to respond to the president’s executive action to end the threat of deportations for young illegal immigrants.
And Democrats believe the Arizona decision will put Romney in another tough spot as he continues to get pulled between the demands of his base for a hard line against illegal immigration and his attempts to appeal to Hispanic voters, who will play a significant role in the election.
Regardless of how the court rules, the issue will ramp up the spotlight on illegal immigration. The case also gives Democrats a chance to highlight the importance of court appointments — and remind Hispanic voters that Obama appointed the first Latina justice, Sonia Sotomayor. If the court upholds the law, Obama could benefit from a backlash among Hispanic voters against a harsh crackdown in Arizona and other states. And if the court strikes it down, Obama can take credit for suing the state to stop it.
On Friday, Obama continued to attack Romney on the subject, delivering an emotional, personal call for immigration reform a day after Romney sought to keep the focus on the struggling economy and the unemployment rate while accusing Obama of failing to keep his commitments to Hispanics.
Obama ripped Romney for vowing to veto the DREAM Act and cast his push for immigration reform in sweeping terms that he tied to his own story as the son of an immigrant. He said his administration has been doing what it can on immigration in the absence of any action in Congress.
And he ripped Republicans for filibustering the DREAM Act in December 2010 even though the bill had originally been written in part by Republicans.
“The bill hadn’t changed, the need hadn’t changed, the only thing that changed was politics,” Obama said.
The DREAM Act would provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16, have been in the country for five years, are younger than 30 and go to college or join the military. Obama’s order merely defers action for renewable two-year periods, during which eligible people could work.
Obama cited his decision to unilaterally end the threat of deportation for an estimated 800,000 young immigrants brought here as children.
“I refused to keep looking young people in the eye, deserving young people in the eye, and tell them, ‘Tough luck, politics is too hard,’” he said.
The speech cemented a strategy Democrats and the Obama campaign have already been pursuing: They have no intention of letting up on an advantage that has them winning the Hispanic vote by 2-to-1 margins in some polls.
Obama strategist David Axelrod said Friday on a conference call with reporters that Romney “danced with the devil on this issue in order to become the Republican nominee. ... He’s made his bet.”
Axelrod dismissed the idea that Obama would face a backlash from voters worried about competition for jobs from immigrants, saying there is “a consensus” across the country that upstanding people brought here as children should be allowed to stay.
In his Thursday speech to Latino leaders, Romney shifted to a more welcoming tone than during the primaries, where he ran to the right of other candidates, used the term “self-deport,” and frequently decried “amnesty.” But his speech largely ignored the issue of the
11 million or 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States, and he continued to duck the question of whether the “DREAMers” Obama has temporarily shielded from deportation should stay in the United States. He said he would put in place a long-term plan without saying what that would be. His one concession on the issue is that he would “stand up” for a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who serve in the military. Romney also expanded on his earlier calls for easier legal immigration, including proposing reallocating green cards to the immediate family members of legal immigrants already in the United States.
Romney received polite applause from the audience but a warm response from elected Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had earlier this week deferred to Romney for guidance on how to respond to the issue, said he applauded “Gov. Romney’s commitment to working to improve our broken immigration system.”
McConnell added, “America has been, and remains, a welcoming country for legal immigration. But the president’s last-minute, election-year ploy can’t erase the fact that he has failed to lead.”
The Romney campaign also sent out statements of support from Latinos backing his campaign.
“The economic vibrancy of our nation’s Hispanic community has been crushed by the burdensome regulations, uncompetitive tax code, and anti-business policies promulgated by the Obama Administration over the past three and a half years,” said Hector Barreto, chairman of the board of the Latino Coalition. “Governor Romney is dedicated to stopping President Obama’s attack on free enterprise and removing bureaucratic red tape and barriers to job creation for small businesses.”
And the Romney camp cited quotes from Obama before the Latino group four years earlier, when he talked of creating new jobs and ending the housing crisis. “No election-year speech can cover up the president’s job-killing policies that have led to 11 percent Hispanic unemployment and millions of Hispanics living in poverty,” Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said.