Wednesday, May 11, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
When President Barack Obama gears up for a big push on immigration reform, as he did Tuesday, he often recalls the stories of immigrants such as Blanca to underscore the motives behind his proposals.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political science senior, sorority sister, and future hopeful international activist or analyst is one of the students they call DREAMers: born in Mexico but residing in Las Vegas from a young age, she’s got an American identity without the identification to match.
“I was brought up and raised the same way everybody else was,” said Blanca, who plans to attend graduate school on the East Coast after finishing at UNLV. “My dad’s an engineer, and my mother is a supervisor. We’re undocumented, but we have been able to reach for the American dream without really being American.”
For students like Blanca, comprehensive immigration reform, especially the piece of it known as the DREAM Act, is the difference between living that American existence on the up-and-up or under the radar.
The DREAM Act aims to put undocumented college students and military enlistees on a pathway to citizenship.
Blanca wants to see immigration reform so badly she’s spent much of her collegiate life campaigning for it. But she’s been down this road before.
In a speech at the Mexican border at El Paso, Texas, Obama on Tuesday applauded the government’s progress in beefing up immigration enforcement "beyond what many believed was possible" and called for a renewed effort to pass immigrant-friendly reforms.
“We’re going to keep up the fight for the DREAM Act,” Obama said. “We’re going to keep up the fight for reform.”
But it remains to be seen how hard the President pushes for these changes and whether his efforts get a bill passed or simply fire up immigrant communities for his 2012 re-election bid.
“What we really need to do is keep up the fight to pass reform,” Obama said. “That’s the ultimate solution to this problem.”
Immigration is given perennial lip service in Washington. But there hasn’t been a concerted effort to pass a bill that’s shown promise since 2007, when Democrats enjoyed majorities in both houses of Congress President George W. Bush was working the GOP to build support for an immigration overhaul.
Back then, a group of Senate Democrats and Republicans, under the leadership of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, met to hammer out a compromise that looked much like the blueprint Obama called for Tuesday:
• Secure the borders and enforce internal immigration laws;
• Hold employers accountable for exploiting undocumented workers;
• Offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. but one that requires those who entered illegally pay fines and drop to the back of the line;
• Revamp the visa system so that the best, brightest and hardest-working immigrants, many of whom come to the U.S. to study, have an easier time trying to stay here.
While many of the senators who helped hash out that compromise are still in Congress, the climate since hasn’t allowed the sort of consensus needed to get a massive immigration bill through. In fact, they haven’t even really tried to bring one to the floor since then.
That’s been a source of constant frustration to many Hispanic voters, who find themselves stuck between a Republican Party unsympathetic to their views on immigration and a Democratic president who hasn’t delivered on his promises.
Obama came to the White House promising an immigration overhaul, or that he would get bruised-up trying, within the first year of his presidency. Now well into year three, Tuesday’s speech was the first sign that such efforts are even taking shape — though not fast enough for those who have been prodding him along.
“[Obama’s] proposed remedy — waiting for the Congress to pass a bill — misses the urgency of the problem,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the House’s strongest pro-immigrant voice. “He has the power to make things better right now, without the Congress having to pass any new laws."
Gutierrez was referring to Obama’s power to issue executive orders, either to stop workplace raids or halt deportation proceedings for students who, in a more favorable political climate, might have been spared through passage of the DREAM Act.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and several Democrat leaders in the Senate have been pushing Obama on the latter point in recent weeks, sending letters asking him to make it official administration policy not to deport DREAMers.
Obama has not responded to the demand, but Reid said he was encouraged by news reports that “the president’s backed off carding students and deporting them...and I support that.”
Reid tried twice last year to pass the DREAM Act, freed from other parts of the usual immigration package of enforcement measures and extensions of citizenship opportunity. He, like the president, was still in favor of that legislative approach Tuesday.
“To fix our broken immigration system, we must honestly assesses our immigration policies...and pursue a comprehensive solution to the problem,” he said in a statement. “And we should give children brought to this country through no fault of their own the opportunity through the DREAM Act to earn legal status if they serve in our armed forces or attend college.”
Reid remained bullish on immigration reform even as the 111th Congress drew to a close last year. He told the Las Vegas Sun in an end-of-session interview that he thought immigration was one of the policy areas where he expected to be able to make some headway in 2011.
There are a few developments that might make that scenario plausible, not the least of which is that Hispanic voters, and the apparent role of immigration in determining their allegiance, have emerged as the electoral force to be reckoned with in emergent swing states.
In perhaps no other state is the growing power of the Hispanic vote as palpable as it is in Nevada.
In November, despite 2010 being an off-presidential election year, Hispanic voters broke state records by turning out 16 percent of the total electorate.
The vote swung heavily toward Democrats — about 70 percent voted for Reid over his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle — but Republicans think they have the opportunity gain ground.
As recently as 2004, Republicans commanded more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally. Party campaign strategists like Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have been saying for years that there’s no reason that couldn’t happen again.
But even those who believe addressing immigration is necessary, there’s a distinct lack of urgency about it.
“Here we go again: another speech, another meeting,” Cornyn said Tuesday of the president’s immigration address. “If the president showed some leadership, he would find a willing partner among Republicans to do what we know we need to do.”
The problem is that the political shifts that make immigration politically possible are the same developments that have relieved Republicans of any pressure to act now.
It’s fairly certain that Republicans will keep their majority in the House in 2012. And the GOP is not in danger of losing the bulk of the seats it has to defend in the Senate, either.
While there is the White House to be won, helping pass immigration reform won’t help Republicans secure Hispanic votes in that category, because anything positive on that happens under Obama’s watch will likely be credited by pro-immigration voters to him.
That draws down the incentive for former driving-force Republicans like Arizona’s McCain and soon-to-be-retiring Sen. Jon Kyl to push for a policy so reviled by most in their party.
That also apparently is sapping the president’s incentive to strike the conciliatory tone necessary to bring legislative partners on board.
“We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement,” Obama said in El Paso Tuesday.
“I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goal posts one more time. They’ll say we need to triple the border patrol. Or quadruple the border patrol. They’ll say we need a higher fence to support reform. Maybe they’ll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat,” he said. “They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.”
If it's politics, Obama has to hope his words resonate out 18 months from now, when he’ll need Hispanic voters to win Nevada.
Obama seized the state with a comfortable 12.5 percent margin of victory in 2008. But this election is about jobs and the economy, and Nevada, being the hardest-hit state in measures of unemployment and foreclosures, is going to be among the last to make a full recovery.
That makes such a large margin less of a sure thing and a high turnout of a reliable, growing base of Hispanic voters all the more vital.
But if Congress can’t overcome its Sisyphean pattern on immigration and produce a bill, Obama’s got to hope Hispanic voters come out in November 2012 for what will by then be a four-year-old promise.
Depending on how things go between now and then, his best instigators may be the undocumented immigrants like Blanca, for whom even the least glimmer of hope is enough to keep their dedication up, election cycle after election cycle.
Blanca still hopes for passage of the DREAM Act so she can apply for a driver’s license, qualify for student loans for graduate school and, eventually, secure the legal status she’ll need to start her career.
So she works the phones, presses the flesh, tries to raise awareness about immigration issue in Las Vegas and urges her voting-eligible friends and family members to head to the polls.
“You just keep running. You gotta finish the race,” she said. “Just keep going, because if you don’t, you’re not going to complete this race.”