Addressing the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference, President Barack Obama argued that there was little he could do on crucial issues such as immigration reform and lowering unemployment without the support of congressional Republicans.
Obama also defended his record on Hispanic-related issues, in particular on increasing access to a college education and on appointments. The appointments of U.S. Dept. of Labor Sec. Hilda Solis (the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Cabinet) and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor were both referenced multiple times in Obama’s speech.
Calling immigrants “[j]ob creators who came here to seek opportunity and now seek to share opportunity,” Obama argued that the current U.S. immigration system tolerates those who break the rules — undocumented immigrants and businesses that employ them — while punishing legal immigrants.
He defended himself on what Hispanic leaders say is a broken campaign pledge, “La Promesa,” to get comprehensive immigration reform on the congressional agenda. Obama said he supported the DREAM Act — a bill providing a path to citizenship to undocumented youth provided they go to college or serve in the military — and was disappointed when Senate Republicans voted against it in 2010.
“Many of the folks who walked away had previously been sponsors [of the DREAM Act],” Obama pointed out, referring to Republican U.S. senators like Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Richard Lugar (Ind.) who worked with Democrats on immigration legislation in the past but now refuse to support legalization efforts because they say immigration has been politicized by the White House.
However, when Obama stated that he could not use the power of the executive branch alone to prevent people who qualify for the DREAM Act from being deported, the crowd broke into loud cries of “Yes you can! Yes you can.” Many have taken a recent memo from Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton urging prosecutorial discretion on immigration cases to be a sign that the administration was seeking immigration reform without going through Congress.
But Obama appeared to reject executive-driven immigration reform, telling the chanting conference attendees that he had to follow the laws as written by Congress.
“Feel free to keep the heat on me, and keep the heat on Democrats, but here’s the thing to remember: The Democrats and your president are with you. Remember who it is that we need to move in order to change the laws,” he said.
Earlier in the speech Obama also said he supported putting laid-off construction workers to work building infrastructure and schools, adding that the burden was on Congress to produce such legislation so that he could sign it. He also spent a portion of the speech discussing ongoing deficit talks, restating his belief that new revenue should accompany meaningful spending cuts.