Obama or Perry (or Romney) – Does it Make a Difference to Immigrants?

Immigration reform protest

Immigration reform advocates at a 2010 protest in D.C. (Photo: Nevele Otseog/flickr)

The latest Rasmussen poll of likely Republican Primary voters finds Texas Governor Rick Perry leading the GOP pack of presidential contenders. He is trailed by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and the winner of last Saturday’s Iowa Ames Straw Poll Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann.

As the GOP whittles down its field of presidential candidates, it is worth looking at where these politicians stand on immigration and asking whether it ultimately matters who wins the presidency in 2012 when it comes to advancing policies and laws beneficial to immigrants and their families.

Some on the right see Perry as having an “immigration problem.” After all, he did sign a law allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition ten years ago, long before that became a major immigration issue nationwide.

The conservative Washington Times also points to his questioning Arizona for passing the draconian SB 1070, which resulted in a cascade of copycat anti-immigrant laws in other states, his criticism of the E-Verify program, and his purported support for open borders as evidence of Perry’s liberal immigration bona fides.

All this might give some the impression that the Texas governor would be good news for immigrants and their advocates. But as Feet in 2 Worlds clarified, Perry’s “open borders” policy is rather nuanced. It would involve a biometric identification system that tracks immigrants to make sure they paid their taxes and obeyed the law. All this as a requirement for two year work visas for migrant laborers.  Perry also tried, but failed, to pass a bill prohibiting sanctuary cities in his state.

Bottom line, it might not be enough for extreme hard-liners, but Perry’s immigration stance is one of enforcement. He calls for thousands of “boots on the ground” and predator drones in the air along the border with Mexico.

The National Catholic Reporter adds that Perry opposes any comprehensive immigration reform effort that includes “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants and most of the provisions of the federal DREAM Act. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is quoted as accusing the governor of having “the most anti-Latino agenda in more than a generation.”

Mitt Romney also toes the party line and prioritizes enforcement. As Mitt Romney Central states – should anyone doubt – “securing the border is priority number one.” In addition, the presidential hopeful opposes “amnesty,” supports an employer verification system, and is against “sanctuary cities.” Particularly chilling for immigrants and their families are his proclamations that “illegal immigrants should be required to return to their home country” and “giving tuition breaks to the children of illegal immigrants needs to stop.”

Michelle Bachmann shares Perry’s and Romney’s views on immigration. At a town hall event in Greenville, South Carolina, she called for a wall to be erected along the border with Mexico and claimed that lax enforcement of immigration laws was a threat to the nation’s security. She promised that “as president of the United States, every mile, every yard, every foot, every inch will be covered on that southern border.”

So on the Republican side, the option is between one type of enforcement or another. No GOP candidate is talking about comprehensive immigration reform. Does this mean that despite little immigration-related action in his first term, the incumbent is still the better choice when it comes to improving the lives of millions of immigrants and their families?

In a certain light, it might not matter who wins the presidency when it comes to comprehensive reform.

President Obama did not pass CIR while both Houses of Congress were under Democratic control and any reform effort is now unlikely to occur due to the current political climate. Mr. Obama has chosen not to use his executive powers to push meaningful immigration changes such as the DREAM Act, one of the least controversial initiatives, or stop deportation proceedings. In fact, his administration has managed to deport a record number of immigrants, much more than his Republican predecessor. Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security unilaterally declared an end to Secure Communities agreements with state and local governments, saying states had no choice but to participate.  Last Thursday, the Board of Immigration Appeals issued a decision that immigrants arrested without a warrant will not be read their rights until they are placed in formal deportation proceedings.

Some argue that if the president’s party were to win control of both Houses of Congress again, then he could finally fulfill his promise to pass immigration reform. On the other hand, he still may not fulfill that promise, leaving immigrants and their families to live in constant uncertainty and anxiety.

Ultimately, it will be up to voters to decide whether they will support a Republican candidate who is crystal clear on where he or she stands, or a Democratic one who says all the right things but has yet to deliver.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.