Latino Lawmakers Urge Obama to Take the High Road on Immigration

By Michelle Chen Oct 02, 2009

A few weeks ago, several hundred advocacy organizations demanded that the Obama administration overturn the aggressive enforcement policies that have alienated immigrant communities over the past eight years. The mounting opposition to one of the most controversial Bush Era anti-immigrant programs was joined this week by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In a letter to the White House, Latino lawmakers called on the administration to "immediately terminate" 287(g), which enables collaboration between local and federal law enforcement in crackdowns on undocumented immigrants:

Although [the program’s] stated purpose is to provide law enforcement a tool to pursue criminals, it is our experience that state and local law enforcement officials actually use their expanded and often unchecked powers under the program to target immigrants and persons of color. It is our opinion that no amount of reforms, no matter how well-intentioned, will change this disturbing reality.

In a follow-up statement on Thursday, grassroots groups voiced targeted criticisms of the program, which the administration claims to have revised. Salvador Reza of Puente in Phoenix, Arizona—which feels the heat of anti-immigrant hate unleashed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County—warned that 287(g) was a taint on Obama’s platform of “change”:

Sheriff Arpaio’s rampant racial profiling and civil rights abuses under the 287(g) program is but one example of a national disgrace… It is high time for the President to put an end to the racial profiling, terror, and the suffering of our communities by terminating the agreements once and for all.

The Hispanic Caucus letter, signed by Co-chairs Nydia Velasquez and Luis Gutierrez, denounced 287(g) as the antithesis of fair immigration reform:

we do not believe that allowing state and local policy to racially profile and target our immigrant communities inspires confidence in our ability to enact [comprehensive immigration reform] and is, therefore, absolutely unnecessary to achieve our shared and vital goal.

The letter may be a pointed response to Obama’s speech at the Hispanic Caucus Institute’s gala on September 16. His remarks commended Justice Sonia Sotomayor and pledged to address health care and education issues facing Latino communities (though he carefully sidestepped the issue of excluding “those who are here illegally” from his proposed health reform plan). Toward the end, he reiterated his lofty promise to strive toward meaningful immigration reform:

This is a tough issue — we all know that — which is why it is so important that we develop the strategy and the policy that’s going to get us over the finish line. My commitment is real and so is my desire to get this done. In fact, the changes we’ve made administratively are already making a difference. The American people did not send us to Washington to ignore problems just because they’re tough. They sent us here to solve them. And that’s what we can and must do on immigration reform.

Yet somehow, Washington still insists on tackling this tough issue by just talking tough—and perpetuating discriminatory policies that mask ethical cowardice with an intimidating veneer. It’s tougher to speak softly, and actions, if they are backed by mutual trust between government and communities, always speak louder than words. Image: ICE Detention and Removal Operations in Los Angeles, California. Courtesy ICE.