Obama, Romney face off over illegal immigration

 Hundreds of immigrants lined up outside an Atlanta-area office building this month for something that has become a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign: a two-year reprieve from deportation.

The White House’s announcement of that new policy thrust the emotional issue of illegal immigration back into the presidential debate, revealing sharp differences between the candidates. Under the policy, immigrants who illegally entered the U.S. when they were young and who are enrolled in school or have completed school can get a temporary promise they won’t be deported, provided they haven’t committed any violent crimes.

President Barack Obama calls the new policy a stopgap measure that will help his administration focus on deporting violent criminals while giving “a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.” Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has criticized the approach and said that in broader terms he opposes “amnesty.” He accuses the Obama administration of “playing immigration politics with these children.”

The candidates are staking out positions on illegal immigration as they court Hispanics, who are expected to turn out at the polls in record numbers Election Day. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund is projecting the Hispanic vote will increase by 26 percent from the 2008 presidential election and that Latinos will account for at least 8.7 percent of the nation’s voters. Hispanic voters are expected to play key roles in the tossup states of Colorado and Florida.

Polls show the economy remains the top issue for voters. But 41 percent of those surveyed nationwide this month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said immigration is very important to their vote, though that is down from 52 percent during the last presidential election. The issue caught fire amid high unemployment last year in Georgia, when state legislators enacted a comprehensive crackdown on illegal immigration. Parts of that law remain tied up in federal court.

Obama’s new policy on deportations was the most consequential decision on immigration in his first term. As a candidate, he pledged to tackle a comprehensive bill to deal with millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally. But the administration never made a major effort on par with health care or financial regulation. Last week at a forum sponsored by the Spanish-language network Univision, host Jorge Ramos pressed Obama on the subject. “With all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise,” Ramos said. Obama replied by blaming Congress.

Even without a comprehensive bill on the federal level, immigration played a prominent role over the past four years. The developments included:

  • A push by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats to pass the DREAM Act, which would give special consideration to illegal immigrants who came here as children, graduated from high school and attended college or served in the military. The bill failed in Congress in 2010 after Republicans rejected its approach, saying any reform of immigration must start with more enforcement at the border. Romney has said he would veto the DREAM Act if it gained passage while he was president.
  • The administration’s decision to focus on violent criminals in the enforcement of immigration laws. That led to a record number of deportation orders. In the region that covers Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, the Obama administration deported 22,963 noncitizens during the fiscal year that ended in September 2011. That was a 13 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.
  • Arizona, Georgia and several other states enacted laws aimed at driving out illegal immigrants. Obama criticized those efforts, saying, “We can’t have 50 different immigration laws around the country.” The Justice Department sued Arizona over its immigration crackdown; Romney opposed the suit. The Supreme Court struck down some aspects of the Arizona law but sustained the “show-me-your-papers” portion that gives police the ability to investigate the immigration status of some suspects.
  • Immigration was a prominent topic of discussion during the Republican primaries, with Romney attacking rivals Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich as too soft on illegal immigrants. Romney also backed the concept of “self-deportation,” in which illegal immigrants would return to their home country and apply for citizenship. He also called for a reformed temporary work visa system and said he would give a green card to any immigrant who earns an advanced degree here.

Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the Latino advocacy group the National Council of La Raza, said there has been “frustration” in the advocate community over Obama’s record, particularly the rise in deportations. But she said the new enforcement policy was a major win for Latinos, and if it was just a play for their vote, so be it.

“Obviously, politics are part of that equation, and our response is if politics and good policy meet, we should be so lucky to have more of that,” Martinez De Castro said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks tighter immigration controls, said he expects Obama — if he wins a second term — to offer “amnesty” to more groups of illegal immigrants.

“There’s a clear difference between the two candidates on immigration — it’s pretty unequivocal,” Krikorian said.

The most recent national tracking poll from the political opinion research firm Latino Decisions shows Obama ahead of Romney 69 percent to 24 percent among Latino voters.

Sylvia Manzano, the firm’s senior project manager, said even though the economy is the top issue for Latinos, the Republican Party has lost ground because many officeholders and supporters use terms such as “anchor babies” and “illegals” that Latinos find offensive. “It will take a little while and some very sincere overtures to make amends,” she said.

On Sept. 15, hundreds of immigrants filed into the Latin American Association’s office on Buford Highway, seeking help applying for the two-year reprieve from deportation. They were clutching weathered folders full of bank records, high school diplomas and foreign passports.

Ayelen Villegas, 20, was among them. Her parents brought her and her younger brother to the United States from Argentina when they were young children. They overstayed their visas and now reside in Doraville. A Lakeside High School graduate, Villegas said she would apply for a driver’s license and seek a job if the government grants her deferred action. She also plans to study nursing at the University of West Georgia.

If she is awarded deferred action, she will be able to apply again in two years. Many immigrants hope that by then the DREAM Act could become law.

While Villegas doesn’t have the right to vote in the United States, she is urging her friends to vote for Obama.

“I’m very grateful for Obama’s decision,” she said. “I know it’s God’s hand behind Obama. If I was able, I would vote for Obama.”

Others, such as Jackie Crowe, say Romney’s approach toward immigration is fairer to people trying to come to the United States legally. The retired teacher from Stockbridge, who is annoyed that illegal immigrants have access to public schools and other taxpayer-funded resources in Georgia, plans to vote for Romney. So does her husband, Thomas, a retired electrician and critic of the reprieve from deportation.

“When I see Barack Obama doing what he did with that amnesty by executive order where he bypassed Congress — and he is bypassing part of the U.S. Constitution — that really disturbs me,” he said. “He went against U.S. law.”