Obama on Immigration: Then and Now

After Barack Obama announced his candidacy, I promised the Latino community that -- at last -- we had a candidate who would fight for us and for our causes. But now I'm having doubts.
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Three years ago, when I met with Senator Barack Obama in his Chicago office and we contemplated his possible run for the presidency, I was enthusiastic.

On that day, it was hard for me to imagine a time I would have to say no to Barack Obama when he asked me for support. But last week, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sat down with the president, and he asked us to vote for the health care reform bill -- a bill that denies immigrants the opportunity to purchase health care with their own money. It was one more in a string of disappointments for the Hispanic community, and today, I no longer find myself able to confidently say "yes" when President Obama asks me for his support.

I remember clearly the afternoon I sat down with Obama. In December 2006, he was preparing for a family trip, and the decision to run weighed heavily on his mind. As a progressive member of Congress from Illinois, I was excited and energized by the prospect of my Senator, and my friend, running for President. At the depths of the Bush presidency, the idea of a like-minded, forward-looking leader for our nation seemed almost too good to be true.

Senator Obama and I had been on the same side of many fights, and we had worked together on the issue that is most urgent to me -- comprehensive immigration reform. At that time, it would not have been unusual to see "Obama Marches for Immigration Reform" as a headline on this site. His record matched his rhetoric on this tough --and controversial-- issue.

I was the first Latino Member of Congress to support Senator Obama's candidacy. For quite a while, I was the only one. My Senator had passion when he told me that comprehensive immigration reform was the right thing for America. He had conviction when he said that, as President, he would make it happen. And I believe he spoke genuinely when he said it would be a fundamental priority as President.

After Barack Obama announced his candidacy, I was in the field from coast to coast promoting him. I promised the Latino community that --at last-- we had a candidate who would fight for us and for our causes.

Then, as a candidate, Senator Obama told packed auditoriums, "I think it's time for a President who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular."

Then, he said, "I will make it a top priority in my first year as President - not just because we need to secure our borders and get control of who comes into our country. And not just because we have to crack down on employers abusing undocumented immigrants. But because we have to finally bring those 12 million people out of the shadows."

That was then. This is now.

Now, for Latinos in this country --for anyone who cares about fair, comprehensive and humane immigration reform-- Barack Obama has delivered "change." It's been a change for the worse.

Then, candidate Obama said "I am absolutely determined that by the end of the first term of the next president, we should have universal health care in this country."

Now, the President defines "universal" as everyone but immigrants, who are denied even the opportunity to pay into the system, to demonstrate their commitment to a healthier America, to access care anywhere but the emergency room at the greatest expense to us all.

Then, candidate Obama brought thousands of Latino activists to their feet by promising action on comprehensive immigration reform.

Now, President Obama devotes one out of 71 minutes in the State of the Union to immigration.

Then, he said, "We cannot and should not deport 12 million people. That would turn America into something we're not; something we don't want to be."

Now, in his first year alone, the President has deported a record 387,790 immigrants, ordering ICE to remove 13 percent more undocumented immigrants than George Bush did during his last year in office.

Now, as American families continue to be separated, as immigrant workers continue to be abused by employers, as the need for a fair and sensible solution becomes more urgent every day, this administration's action on comprehensive immigration reform can fairly be summarized with one word: nothing.

As a Democrat from Illinois, as a member of Congress who believes in and admires President Obama, it genuinely pains me to say that the facts show that this President has done no more to solve our immigration crisis than George W. Bush.

I'm not the only one to notice. On March 21, tens of thousands of frustrated and impatient people will march on Washington to tell Congress and the President that they have not forgotten the promises that were made to them about immigration reform. They will gather from across the country as human rights activists, as labor activists, as religious activists, as hard-working men and women who deserve fairness on the job. They will come as children who refuse to be separated from their parents and students who demand access to the education they have earned. And they will rally as Latinos who for the most part have supported the Democratic Party and whose power helped turn states like Florida and Colorado and Nevada a bright shade of blue.

They have fought and marched and voted for a system that recognizes the value of immigrants, not one that exploits immigrants for cheap political gain. Our people deserve laws that don't stop at securing our border, but go further to secure our economy, protect our workforce and recognize the proud tradition of immigrants seeking the American Dream.

Some pundits and political analysts will say that now is not the time to promote immigration reform. It's too controversial. It's too difficult. It could cost Democrats some seats in Congress, or distract the President from other initiatives.

But the truth is that our community and its leaders have now spent years waiting patiently at the back of the line of national priorities. We've asked nicely, we've advocated politely. We've turned the other cheek so many times that our heads are spinning.

Waiting, and hoping, doesn't make our borders safe. It doesn't keep families together. It doesn't strengthen our economy. It doesn't bring human beings out of the shadows so they can work harder and pay more taxes.

Only action now by President Obama and this Congress will bring fairness and justice to a system that is fundamentally unfair and unjust.

The need for comprehensive immigration reform is urgent. The proposals exist. The road to reform is clear. Then, as a candidate, Barack Obama said he was ready to travel that road. Now, as President, we need him to hold to that promise and begin the journey today.

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