Activists See Reversal, Even Betrayal, in Obama's Postponement of Immigration Reform Bill

President Barack Obama has now made official something that had looked more and more likely ever since he took office: that, because he has too much to deal with, immigration reform won’t happen this year. For pro-immigration and Hispanic advocates, this is a clear backtracking on the president’s campaign promise and, while some try to keep a hopeful outlook, others are starting to use the “B” word: betrayal.

“This is a reversal of his campaign promise to pass immigration reform in 2009,” wrote Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Wisconsin nonprofit Voces de la Frontera in the Huffington Post. “Patience for 2010 is hard to come by when the new administration persists with an enforcement-only strategy that Obama criticized during the campaign trail.

“Both represent a betrayal to Latino voters who were a key constituency in delivering the presidency and a majority of Democrats to the U.S. Congress.

A week before the presidential election, Obama told La Opinión he was "committed" to putting together "a recipe" for immigration reform "starting in my first year" in the presidency.

A week before the presidential election, Obama told La Opinión he was "committed" to putting together "a recipe" for immigration reform "starting in my first year" in the presidency.

Obama never promised to pass an immigration bill in 2009; he always talked about dealing with the issue in 2009. (Anxious voters probably did not stop to weigh the nuance in his carefully chosen words.) But in addition to the matter of Congress passing (or not) a reform bill, advocates are starting to conclude that the candidate who ran on “Hope” and “Change” is not that different from his predecessor in the White House, whose approach to immigration was about strict enforcement and constant talk of the war on terror.

Responding to comments by Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano, Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told The New York Times, “She’s increasing enforcement of laws that President Obama and she have both said are broken, and the result is going to be a lot of human misery.”

There has been a somewhat different style. But the progressive camp has not seen any dramatic gestures on immigration, equivalent to the signing of an order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay on Obama’s first day in office. Only a few measures here and there, and none too far-reaching, have shown a softer approach to what many see as a humanitarian crisis.

The two decisions that activists hoped Obama would put into effect through executive orders –ending work-site raids and halting deportations– have not taken place.

The biggest change so far has been the recently announced modifications to the immigrant detention system, which got a tepid response from activists.

“That’s incredibly disappointing,” Andrea Black, coordinator for Detention Watch Network, told The Associated Press. “The changes aren’t going to address the fundamental problem, which is the overemphasis on the use of detention.” (Immigrants who entered the country illegally are not criminals, since they have committed a civil law violation.)

After the news that Obama had declared the Congressional debate on immigration reform postponed until 2010, some warned that Democrats are risking alienating a crucial voting bloc.

Francisco Lopez, executive director of Oregon advocacy group CAUSA, told the Cristian Science Monitor:

“If we don’t see a vote in Congress sooner than later, we will see a large Latino community not showing up at polls in midterm elections…. That is something the Democratic Party needs to measure.

“It’s a very challenging time for the president, but the emerging Latino community is expecting the president and Congress to keep their promise.”

After Napolitano defended the administration’s approach as “very, very different” from that of the previous White House, Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, asked in the Times: “How many more millions if not billions of dollars are we going to put into the border without fixing the immigration system?”

The American Civil Liberties Union also responded to Napolitano’s speech in El Paso, Texas, where she spoke about plans “to augment border security resources and expand the 287(g) program” of immigration enforcement by local law agencies. The ACLU said the secretary’s statement raised “serious civil liberties concerns” and criticized the announced expansion of another controversial program, the “flawed database” E-Verify.

In a statement, Emily Carey, program coordinator of the ACLU of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights, lamented that,

“…border enforcement continues to increase in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform. Increases in resources for enforcement have not been matched by a proportional increase in resources for appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms. Without such mechanisms, the potential for further erosion of civil liberties for border communities increases.”

One activist who chose to look at the bright side was Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, who wrote in the Huffington Post that “(a)lthough many in the news media have focused on disappointment with the time frame (Obama) laid out — draft legislation later this year, and action early next — they miss a crucial point.

“The President continues to highlight how comprehensive immigration reform is in the best interests of our country.”

Also Rosa Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said Obama “is not going to forget the immigrant community,” according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Yet David L. Ostendorf, writing on the progressive website Imagine 2050, said the postponement is a sign of a likely defeat for the pro-immigration camp.

“In light of the tepid response of Administration and Congressional reformists to the health care debacle, the possibility of more setbacks on all fronts grows by the day: to wit, the President’s announcement this week that immigration reform will see action ‘when we come back next year.'”

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