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Immigration Questions Dominate Obama Forum with Latino Community

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President Barack Obama said today that the Hispanic community can continue to count on him as the strongest of advocates for comprehensive immigration reform but that it doesn’t depend solely on him, and added that it doesn’t help the debate “by perpetrating the notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things.”

Obama also said that he is sure that “within my lifetime we will have a Latino candidate for President who is very competitive and may win.” He urged the Hispanic community to match their growth in numbers with votes, because by increasing their participation at the polls “both parties will respond to the demands of Latinos.”

During a “virtual roundtable” at the White House, at which AOL Latino/Huffington Post Latino Voices, Yahoo and MSN Latino participated, the president answered direct questions from readers in Spanish on topics of interest to the Latino community: immigration reform, unemployment, health care, Social Security, diplomatic relations with Mexico, the crisis in drug and weapons trafficking, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the power of the Latino vote, and even the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

The immigration questions, of course, dominated the conversation. The president reiterated his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, a campaign promise he made in 2008 but still has yet to fulfill. He also repeated the argument that, unlike past years, Democrats cannot count on any Republican support for reform. Even the DREAM Act, which would provide legal status to undocumented youth, has not gained the support of a single Republican this year—not even Republicans who sponsored the bill in the past.

Besides, he said, “to change the laws” a bill would have to pass “a House controlled by Republicans and you need 60 votes in the Senate,” an argument that led some critics to point out that during the past two years of his term both chambers were under Democratic control. That said, it is true that some Republican votes have always been needed to compensate for the conservative Democrats who are opposed to immigration reform.

While Obama remained calm at all times, perhaps the only time he got expressive was when Cesar, a young law student from New York, asked the president why he hadn’t done more to pass the DREAM Act, “Mr. President, I am an undocumented law graduate from New York City. I’m just writing to say that your message that you do not have a dance partner is not a message of hope.  A real dancer goes out on the dance floor and picks out his or her dance partner.  You’re just waiting.  You have the facts, numbers, dollars and votes on the side of granting administrative relief for DREAMers. We are doing our part.  It is time to do yours, Mr. President.”

“I just have to continue to say this notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true,” Obama declared. “And I think there’s been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the DREAM Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration passed by perpetuating the notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things.  It’s just not true.” 

“We live in a democracy,” he added, and reminded the audience that Congress is responsible for passing laws for him to sign. “We have to recognize how the system works.” He did, however, add that “nobody will be a stronger advocate for making that happen than me.” 

Gabriel Lerner, editor of AOL Latino and Latino Voices Huff Post, asked the president about the record number of deportations under his administration, and the fact that he has not solely targeted immigrants with criminal records.

Obama said that “the statistics are actually a little deceptive” because “we’ve been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back.” Those, he said, “count as deportations.” 

But Obama defended the changes his administration has made to deportation priorities, concentrating on serious criminals rather than on DREAMers, for example.

However, in the past few days several people have complained that despite the changes, many people who are not supposed to be “priorities” for deportation continue to get deported. Last week, one of the leaders of the national DREAM Act movement, Matías Ramos, announced that ICE had removed the electronic ankle bracelet they had forced him to wear for the past week.

Another question, on the importance of the Latino community to the political fabric of the nation, referred to rumors that Republicans are considering naming Hispanic Florida Senator Marco Rubio as their vicepresidential nominee in the upcoming election. Obama very deliberately and astutely did not refer to Rubio or any other Republican by name, and instead talked about the importance of Latinos to reflect the magnitude of their population size by registering and voting. 

On this, Obama speaks from experience. The growth in the number of Latinos who registered and voted in the 2008 elections contributed to Obama’s wins in key states, and he took the White House with 67% of the Latino vote.

This support has eroded due to discontent among some Latinos with unemployment and Obama’s failure to pass immigration reform 

Obama has begun a tour of key states in the 2012 election that have strong Hispanic presences, in the hopes of reconnecting with these voters—who he will need in order to get reelected in 2012.

Today’s forum, while ostensibly in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, offered the president the opportunity to continue the process of reconnecting with this crucial voting bloc.