When the Message Doesn’t Match the Action: What President’s Immigration Speech Missed

Nov 21, 2014
3:30 PM

It has been a heady 48 hours from the lead-up to “what will President Obama say about immigration?” to what he actually said last night in a national address to the nation that mainstream networks ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX didn’t think was important enough to pre-empt its prime time programing. Nonetheless, the close to 16-minute speech was seen online, on Spanish-language television (interrupting the Latin Grammys, which was huge) and on the major cable news networks.

The day after has been predictable. Many who favor the President called the entire speech bold. The Spanish-language press made it seem like Obama won the Latino Super Bowl.

The Breitbarts of the world would lead you to believe that Hell Has Officially Be Unleashed on the American people, and later today, a horde of Mexican Ebola-Carrying ISIS Child Terrorists would be invading the border.

Then there is this from the bastion of journalism:

Now, rational people can tell you that what the president said last night was not permanent, nor did it turn over the permanent citizenship keys to people. For those individuals who benefit —and it is a “life-changing moment” as MSNBC’s José Diaz-Balart said on “Morning Joe”— it is indeed a historic occasion, although temporary. Millions of real people no longer have to be afraid, and for that, we should be celebrating.

Yet such news was bittersweet, since there are many who believe the president wasn’t bold enough. To think that the GOP would not get all angry last night was the easiest bet of the night. Within minutes of the speech, the RNC was sending emails about how “the last time the President issued an executive order to change our immigration laws, he created a crisis at our border, leaving thousands of children at risk and ripping apart the families he claims to be protecting today.” President Obama and the Democrats were already taking the fight to Republicans, so why bring a Nerf ball to a rock fight, as one one my friends told me last night?

And that is the issue few are discussing: how the almost mediocre messaging from the President didn’t go far enough to match the intent of this actions. For example, on the very same day Secure Communities was discontinued by the Department of Homeland Security, the president makes no specific mention of it in his speech. Why didn’t he mention that specific name, instead couching it with prosecutorial discretion? That news was just as important, if not more important, than many of the points the president made last night.

I am also still perplexed by the statement “felons not families.” While the undocumented parents of children born in the United States fall into a deportation shield, what about the parents of DREAMers? Don’t those parents have families too? Are they “felons” now, because they weren’t included in the shield?

Finally, whoever thought of the metaphor that the current system is “amnesty” just proved that they are trying to counter a very inaccurate Republican criticism without putting much thought into it. It came across as classic political consultant talk: you know, take a term that is bothering you (say, “Obamacare”) and flip it (“Obama Cares”). When the president suggested that “amnesty” bit, what was he saying? That yes, people are unlawful, at least the “bad” ones who lack Silicon Valley skills and we as a country are just giving them a free pass? And did the President have to say this: “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” Mix your messages and most of the time they never make sense. Such type of messaging is what can lead to things like this.

The expectations were very high last night, and it is safe to assume that many wanted high rhetoric and high action (did I mention that Secure Communities was discontinued yesterday?). They sure didn’t want a taste of respectability politics that has become a cornerstone of the Obama presidency. The disconnect felt a bit off, a bit strange, a bit calculated. The speech was enough to get the check-off items in place (have Latinos like us again), but to suggest that it was all based on principle and not politics would not be accurate, in my opinion.

While many are praising the president’s words (“We were strangers once, too”) and rightly so, such symbolism happened at the very end of the speech. Instead of leading with that moral gravitas, the initial crux of the president’s message was more consistent with his administration’s policies: secure the border, favor the “good” immigrants and find a way to “deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already had live in our country.” It was not progressive immigration policy at all, and while the neo-nativists lamented that Emperor Obama is here, last night it felt like Stern Dad Obama lecturing us all about compassion.

Sure, the president’s words also focused on why the current House of Representatives never acted on immigration reform, but we never got anything about how such a broken system is a product of our own doing or that in the end, no matter the action, you still have to keep those private detention centers operational. You still have to deal with the stories of abuse in those facilities. You will still have to deport those who didn’t qualify, and I am not talking about the “gang members” or those “border kids” the president wanted to let everyone know are a problem, even though our Latin Americans policies have led to such situations. There are still “good” immigrants out there who still fear deportation today.

Last night’s rhetoric was more of what a conservative Democrat would say at the risk of being labeled soft on immigration. We all know that President Obama and his Administration aren’t really soft at all on enforcement, and if it weren’t for a #Not1More campaign that everyone mocked last year but was the impetus to get the president to take eventually action, I don’t think #ImmigrationAction would have trended on Twitter last night. The activists who everyone thought were being irresponsible just kept fighting, even when politics took over the debate. People should be thanking them first, the White House second.

Yet here we are now. The one very good thing is that the conversation is happening again. However, if the GOP stays stubborn (very likely), whoever wins the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination can continue to “promise” immigration reform and know that U.S. Latino voters will choose him or her. As much as people don’t want to remember that when the Democrats had control of the Congress during the First Two Years of Hope and Change, when nothing happened on immigration reform, the quest for immigration reform will continue. And so will the “¡Sí se puede!” chants, which, quite frankly, have lost their luster.

Promise. Don’t deliver. Rinse. Repeat. Enact an executive order to win 2012. Promise again. Delay it to not win in 2014, but then act on it so that Democrats don’t lose Latinos in 2016 after Democrats get pasted by Republicans, who are under the false illusion that the electorate will now magically be on their side when it comes to immigration.

Last night, bold action was indeed taken by the president after years of pressure, but I am left to wonder if his heart was ever into it, since his words didn’t reflect such courage.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, his personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  Univisionand The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream.