President Obama’s Latino Miscalculation

On Friday President Obama announced his decision that the executive branch would cease to follow immigration laws as mandated by Congress, and would conversely provide work permits for illegal aliens who have been living in the country continuously for at least five years. The reason for both the decision and its timing are obvious. The President wants to drive home his point about a do-nothing congress; in the hopes of scoring some quick points in the November elections. President Obama has made a serious miscalculation; one so bad in fact that it could make one wonder if he had talked to any of the Latino community in the United States at all before making this announcement.

The first problem is obvious. President Obama’s recession is effecting minorities and youth particularly hard. Current unemployment rate in the Latino community is 11 percent. Youth unemployment among the Latino community is even worse, roughly 31 percent. Adding 800,000 illegal immigrants and now new job-seekers into this mix will only make unemployment in the Latino community worse. The ill-conceived plan will negatively affect the community legally in this country and with the power of the vote, while those who are most benefited are offered no path to citizenship.

The second issue is one of principle. Most Latino Americans who come to the United States (legally and illegally) do so because this is a nation which holds sacrosanct the principle which in Spanish is roughly translated “the empire of the law.” Rule of law problems in Latin America are notorious. Private and intellectual property are often not respected; judges are too often corrupt; arbitrary detentions are on the rise; and the impunity rates for criminals are far too high. Abuse from the executive branches is even worse – where in countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Nicaragua there is nobody that can stand against the powerful caudillos running the country. Latino Americans, in the United States and outside, know this. They understand far better than those who have never left the USA that without the hard nucleus of laws and a government at the service of those laws, there is no guarantee to their rights and their property. They know this because too often they have been victims of arbitrary use of executive power.Even illegals know they will get a better deal here in the USA than they ever would at home.

If the President thinks he will make friends in the Latino community with the obvious abuse of executive power, bypassing congress and ruling by decree which happens so often in Latin America, he’s in for a surprise.

The final issue is the tendency of those in the United States to treat Latin America monolithically;  as “the Latino community.”  Latino American is not a nationality. We would never be so bold as to lump Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans and Indonesians in the same pot.  There are important differences; as there are in Latin America.  The fabled block doesn’t really exist.  What exists are dozens of tensions across the hemisphere; many immigration related.  Argentines are frustrated with Bolivian immigration; Costa Ricans with Nicaraguans; Venezuelans with Colombians; Mexicans with Salvadorans and Hondurans; and yes, U.S. citizens with Mexicans.  I would venture that those angriest about President Obama’s plan at home are probably the U.S. citizens who are immigrants from Latin America who waited ten years and waded through a sea of paperwork to legally become citizens themselves.

It is within this larger and much more nuanced discussion that president has sought a cheap win. The real issue at the heart of all this is of course the attempt to portray the conservatives as heartless. This is unfair, but not surprising coming from a divisive White House keen on scoring cheap points instead of solving real issues.  The reality is that immigration reform is a complicated issue with no champions.  President Bush when he was in office proposed a plan that was widely seen as fair but was ultimately unsuccessful.  It is rumored that Senator Marco Rubio was also attempting to hobble together bi-partisan support for a good plan when he had the wind sucked out of his sails by the president.

America is a great country with a brilliant future and the ability to address complex issues through our representative government and all the civil society organizations that make up the fabric of life in this country. Sidestepping the delicate but necessary negotiation process involved in making laws which solve critical and complicated issues in order to rack up cheap wins based upon partisan causes is beneath us.  Doing so outside the bounds of legality is not what America is about. The president should reconsider his approach, for the good of “we the people.”