TOPICS > Politics

Obama Renews Call to Fix ‘Broken’ Immigration System

May 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The president visited El Paso, Texas, Tuesday to launch a public campaign for immigration reform. Ray Suarez discuses the new push with Hernan Rozemberg and Michel Marizco, senior correspondents for "Fronteras: The Changing America Desk," a network of National Public Radio stations across the southwest focusing on border issues.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama headed for the U.S.-Mexican border today to launch a public campaign for immigration reform.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The president made his renewed push in the west Texas town of El Paso, hard by the Rio Grande.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In embracing America, you can become American. That is what makes this country great. That enriches all of us.

RAY SUAREZ: An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now live in the U.S. And the president said it made sense to offer them a path to citizenship, in addition to securing the borders. And he challenged Republicans to join him.

BARACK OBAMA: We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform, as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done.

But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I have got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goalposts on us one more time.

Maybe they’ll need a moat.

(LAUGHTER)

Maybe they want alligators in the moat.

(LAUGHTER)

They’ll never be satisfied.

RAY SUAREZ: Republicans charged today the president is only now resurrecting immigration to win Hispanic voters in the 2012 elections.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn:

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: Here we go again, another speech, another meeting, and no leadership from the president on immigration reform.

But to echo Gen. David Petraeus, he said — when he was talking about Iraq, he said, it’s hard, but not hopeless. If the president would show some leadership on the issue of immigration reform, credible immigration reform, starting with border security, he would find a willing partner among Republicans to do what we know we need to do, but which we cannot do by ourselves and without presidential leadership.

RAY SUAREZ: For now, though, Republicans have shown little interest in citizenship measures. Instead, the explosion of violence in Mexico’s drug war has shifted the emphasis to border security.

Arizona’s U.S. senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, have introduced border security legislation. And, last week, McCain challenged Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary. She’s a former Democratic governor of Arizona.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: We have never had on your part or the part of the administration a serious sit-down, negotiations on this issue.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: There’s no one who has spent more time working on this Arizona issue than I have over the past two years. And we will continue…

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: There’s no one that has spent more time on the issue than I have, Madam Secretary…

JANET NAPOLITANO: And we continue to…

(CROSSTALK)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: … long before you were governor and long before you were secretary.

RAY SUAREZ: The last attempt to pass major immigration reform died in 2007, after concerted efforts by President Bush ran into Republican objections. A year earlier, nationwide protests by Latino groups had pushed the issue to the forefront.

Then candidate Obama repeatedly spoke to the issue during the 2008 campaign.

BARACK OBAMA: I will make it a top priority in my first year as president.

RAY SUAREZ: But the great recession and the long battle over health care reform supplanted that plan. And immigration was relegated to mentions during State of the Union addresses.

BARACK OBAMA: And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system, to secure our borders, and enforce our laws…

… and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, concrete legislative action has languished. The so-called DREAM Act passed the House last year, but died amid Senate Republican filibusters. It would have paved a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

But White House officials say the administration has a record of accomplishment around this issue in its first two years in office. They say fewer undocumented workers are crossing into the U.S., although that’s partly due to the weak economy, and deportations have greatly increased, focusing mostly on criminals found to be living in the U.S.

In the meantime, states along the border and elsewhere have begun acting on their own. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law last year to mandate immigration checks for people questioned on other charges. Parts of the law are on court-ordered hold.

A federal judge blocked a similar law in Utah today. And Texas legislators voted last night to require that police give immigration offenses the same priority as they do other crimes.

We are joined now by two senior correspondents for “Fronteras: The Changing America Desk,” a network of public radio stations across the Southwest focusing on immigration and border issues.

Hernan Rozemberg is reporting from San Antonio, Texas. Michel Marizco is in Tucson, Ariz.

Hernan, let me start with you.

As we mentioned earlier, the president promised a reform package early in his term. The term’s now more than half over. Is there any proposal on the desk? Where does that effort stand? Is there enough time in what remains of his term?

HERNAN ROZEMBERG, “Fronteras: The Changing America Desk”: I don’t think so. Under the current situation, under the current Republican leadership, I think that it’s all become a political football being tossed from one party to the other to see who is going to score the next touchdown. But, in the end, this game is not going to be won by either party.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s go to you next, Michel.

Today, the president insisted, down on the border, in El Paso, that, in fact, he has done what Republican leadership has asked him to do. When you look at the claims for border security, for the fence, which today he claimed was complete, does that point stand up to some scrutiny?

MICHEL MARIZCO, “Fronteras: The Changing America Desk”: It’s definitely worth considering some different issues.

In 2004, President Bush had declared that the border was broken. President Obama has taken a step back from the border. He’s saying that the immigration system is broken. When you look at these specifics along the border, the Government Accountability Office this past winter said that less than 1,120 miles of the border were under some sort of desired control.

Janet Napolitano and Commissioner Alan Bersin have been really taking the show on the road, saying that the border is more secure than ever. There are residents along the border and within the interior, north Texas near Dallas, Phoenix, who might have an issue with that.

Home invasions, drug assassinations, some different issues have still arisen, much the same as they have in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: But Hernan the president cited FBI statistics that show big border metropolises, San Diego, Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, are safer than they have been in a long time. Has — has he got something there?

HERNAN ROZEMBERG: Well yes that’s — that brings up the whole issue of spillover effect or spillover violence that, again, has become a political issue. It’s really hard to decipher, you know, just how much spillover violence there has been.

There’s no doubt that the increase in violence in Mexican border cities has had some kind of impact on the U.S. side. But it’s starkly difference — different when you go from a U.S. city into the Mexican city. I mean, as you were saying, El Paso has been cited oftentimes as being one of the safest cities in the U.S. And there it is right across from Ciudad Juarez, which is the most deadly in the world at the moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what kinds of spillover effects? I mean, the president was in El Paso today. What are the kinds of things that you see there right next to, as you mentioned, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico?

HERNAN ROZEMBERG: Well, it’s pretty well-documented that the drug cartels have a pretty strong presence in the U.S. now, and not just in border states, but throughout the country.

And along U.S. border cities, in some, you have been seeing an increase in violence, homicides, for example, that are supposed to be directed to — related to drug violence. And you also see the increased infiltration of gangs, for example, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, which, as the Mexican drug cartels have seen a very lucrative, a very — a very money-making business in smuggling immigrants, so they have jumped on that as well.

But along with that, it has become a lot of competition between the cartels and gangs. And they’re taking each other out and anybody who is standing in between these days.

RAY SUAREZ: Michel, a lot of numbers are thrown back and forth about the success of federal efforts down on the border. Do we know whether you’re more likely to be found or caught if you try to cross and more likely to be sent home if you are caught?

MICHEL MARIZCO: It’s really tricky.

Deportations have increased, particularly the focus on criminal immigrants who have committed a law — breaking a law, other than crossing the border illegally. At the same time apprehensions have dropped down to less than there were in, say, 2006, 2005.

And when you look at some of the apprehension numbers, there has been some question. There’s a local sheriff here in Arizona who has been stating that the Border Patrol has had a policy of trying to reduce apprehensions by turning migrants back south, instead of turning them into the federal court system for deportation.

Overall, apprehensions have dropped and there has been a fair assumption that illegal immigration into the country has dropped. Now, whether or not that is because of an increase in border security or because of the economy and because perhaps of certain laws that have been passed in Arizona’s 1070 and some of the other unfavorable laws against illegal immigrants that are being taken up by the states, that remains to be seen.

Right there, there’s no clear answer. And it does appear that Napolitano and the president have been trying to take the credit for it as a result of steeped-up border security.

RAY SUAREZ: Hernan, the number that’s often used to capture the number of people living in the country illegally has dropped from 12 million, sort of the consensus figure, to 11 million.

HERNAN ROZEMBERG: Right. Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Are those people who were sent home or people who sent themselves home?

HERNAN ROZEMBERG: Well, it’s kind of hard to tell. As the leading researcher that usually comes up with those numbers, Jeff Passel, at the Pew Hispanic Center will tell you, I think there has been an established pattern now that, due to some of the factors that my colleague just cited, the cyclical — the cycle, rather, of folks going back and forth that they used to do years ago has pretty much ended.

You know, folks don’t even go back home to visit families anymore, the way they used to. They assume, you know, if they make it here safely, they might as well just stay put and ride it out as long as they can. But it’s really hard to decipher, you know, the precise number.

One study, I think (INAUDIBLE) a few years ago cited as many as 20 million. No one will know for sure, but no doubt it’s a huge population. And, you know, they’re just sitting there without new legislation to have done something to remedy their status — or change their status.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Michel, quickly, before we go, SB-1070 has just passed its one-year mark. Now, a lot of the law hasn’t been implemented because of a federal court injunction.

But what has opinion in Arizona concluded about SB-1070, now that it’s been on the books for a year?

MICHEL MARIZCO: One of the major points that people bring up is the amount of boycotts that have struck the state as a result of 1070.

Now when you look at some of the numbers, for example, in the Mexican state of Sonora, which borders Arizona, there’s actually a program for students who — whose family left Arizona and the U.S. to go back to Mexico to try to reintegrate there because of political and economical climate there.

When you look at some of the different satisfaction levels that people have had with 1070, much of it is psychological. Much of it, as you said, you know, it has not been enforced in actuality, but the threat of it is always there. And, clearly, since we saw yesterday with the governor trying to ask the Supreme Court to take up the issue to lift the injunction against 1070, this is not going away.

RAY SUAREZ: Michel Marizco and Hernan Rozemberg, thank you both.

MICHEL MARIZCO: Thank you.

HERNAN ROZEMBERG: Thank you for having us.