- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Don’t let the numbers fool you. Barack Obama may be leading Mitt Romney by a two-to-one ratio in polls of Latino voters, and 58 percent of those voters may approve of the job the president is doing on immigration. But Obama’s record on immigration isn’t unassailable — as the president’s appearance at an Univision forum in Florida on Thursday, following Romney’s participation in the same program yesterday, made clear.
Early on in the interview, for example, Univision host Jorge Ramos asked the president why he hadn’t kept his pledge to Ramos in 2008 that "we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support." Obama responded that unforeseen crises and partisanship — and the limits of presidential power — had torpedoed comprehensive immigration reform and specifically the DREAM Act, which stalled in the Senate in 2010 and would have offered legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and enrolled in college or joined the military.
"When we talked about immigration reform in the first year, that’s before the economy was on the verge of collapse," Obama noted. "What I confess I did not expect," he added, "and so I’m happy to take responsibility for being naive here, is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform … suddenly would walk away." He later said his "biggest failure" was not passing immigration reform. Here’s a clip from the interview:
Obama also had to address the fact that his administration has pursued a far more aggressive deportation policy than his predecessors, removing nearly 1.5 million illegal immigrants from the country since 2009 (according to PolitiFact, Obama has deported an average of 32,886 people per month, compared with 20,964 under Bush and 9,059 under Clinton). In his Univision interview, Obama argued that immigration authorities have focused on threats to the United States — criminals, people apprehended at the border — rather than illegal immigrants with clean records and deep roots in the country. According to government figures, roughly 50 percent of those deported in fiscal year 2012 were convicted criminals, and roughly 40 percent of the non-criminals were removed at or near the border (the group Obama didn’t mention: the 50 percent of non-criminals who had repeatedly violated immigration law).
Additionally, Obama had to fend off the criticism that he had politics in mind when he issued an executive order in June halting the deportation of some young undocumented immigrants and allowing them to apply for work permits. The president told Univision’s anchors that the executive order was a response to the stories he heard from young people across the country, and that he was winning the Latino vote long before he took the action.
Indeed, Obama’s consistent advantage among Latinos may be the most interesting story here. The evidence suggests that Obama’s record on immigration is a political liability. An AP-Univision poll in 2010 found that 56 percent of Hispanics felt Congress not passing a comprehensive immigration bill was a bad thing for the country, and a Pew Hispanic poll in 2011 reported that 59 percent of Latinos disapproved of Obama’s deportation policy. By early 2012, a Univision News/ABC/Latino Decision poll found that 53 percent of Latinos were less excited about the president than when he took office (Obama regained some of that enthusiasm and widened his lead against Romney among Latinos after announcing his executive order in June).
During the Univision forum on Wednesday, Romney tried to exploit these very vulnerabilities. He criticized Obama for not fixing the immigration system in his first year as promised, and pledged to do so through measures such as increased border security, temporary work visas, and an employment verification system (something the president also supports). "We’re not going to round up people around the country and deport them," he added. But Romney’s softening immigration stance has yet to move the dial on Hispanic support. Conservative attacks on Obama from the left — such as an ad in August condemning the administration’s aggressive deportation policy — haven’t made a dent either.
Romney’s positions on immigration may not be the only issue at play here. Polls consistently find that Latino voters care more about pocketbook such as jobs and the economy than they do about immigration. And, if the polling is any indication, Obama appears to be winning the economic argument among Latino voters — whether or not he’s fulfilled his promises on immigration.