Commentary: On immigration, President Obama: Yes, you can!

The Miami HeraldJuly 29, 2011 

When President Barack Obama spoke to a major U.S. Hispanic group earlier this week about his unsuccessful efforts to change this country’s outdated immigration rules, many in the crowd broke out in a spontaneous chant: “Yes you can!”

The chant at the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza in Washington D.C. on Monday, a mocking reminder of the president’s 2008 campaign slogan, marked a rare moment of confrontation between Obama and his Hispanic constituents. Obama got 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and used to get warm welcomes from U.S. Hispanic audiences.

Hispanic leaders are not happy with the Obama administration’s nearly 1 million deportations over the past three years, which they say is more than took place during former President George W. Bush’s eight years in office. And they are not buying the president’s line that he cannot do anything to change immigration rules because of the Republican Party’s hard-line anti-immigrant stands.

According to Hispanic leaders, there are many things the president could do using his executive authority, like granting temporary immigration benefits to good students or army volunteers who were brought to the country when they were children. The Dream Act bill, which would grant a path to legalization to these students, has been blocked by Republicans in the Senate.

“We are disappointed that we have not seen the president do more to address the high level of deportations,” NCLR President Janet Murguia told me after the meeting. “We all agree that violent criminals should be deported, but we take issue with the fact that people who make real contributions to this country are being deported. We don’t think they should be the enforcement priority right now.”

On the very day Obama was talking to the NCLR, I got a call from the Argentine consul in Miami, who brought to my attention the case of an Argentine student facing imminent deportation.

When I later talked to 23-year-old Miyen Spinelli, I couldn’t help wondering why the financially strapped U.S. government is spending time and money to deport young college graduates like him.

Spinelli told me he has no criminal record, graduated high school in the top 15 percent of his class, got his B.A. degree in sports administration at St. Thomas University, and is preparing to do his Master’s degree in international business. He paid for his studies with about $8,000 a year from his family’s savings, plus a soccer scholarship from his school.

Shortly before graduation, during a trip to Maine for a soccer tournament, the car in which he was traveling — driven by a friend — was stopped by police. They were not speeding, nor had violated any traffic law. The policeman said he had stopped them to check on the car’s Florida license plate.

“He asked me for my papers, and then called the border patrol,” Spinelli told me. “They kept me six days in jail, and then gave me a deportation order for August 15, and put an electronic bracelet on my right ankle.”

When his story appeared in The Miami Herald on July 26, immigration officials gave Spinelli a one-year extension on his deportation order. Spinelli now hopes that, in the meantime, the Dream Act will pass.

There are an estimated 825,000 foreign students in the United States who could benefit from the Dream Act. Most of them came to the country at a very young age. Some are top students in sciences and engineering, whose skills that the U.S. badly needs.

Other countries, such as Canada, France, Britain, Germany and Singapore, go out of their way to give legal visas to their best foreign students, or workers whose skills are needed. In Canada, about 36 percent of immigrant visas are given out annually in the “skilled visa” category, as opposed to only 6.5 percent in the United States, according to a recent Brookings Institution study.

My opinion: Deporting qualified students and military volunteers is a waste of government time and money, goes against the U.S. tradition of being a country of immigrants, and slows down America’s creative energies at a time when other countries are benefitting from “brain gain” immigration strategies.

Republican anti-immigration zealots are hurting America by opposing the Dream Act. But, while they come to their senses, Obama should use his executive powers to delay deportations of qualified foreign students. As the NCLR audience told him this week, Yes, he can!

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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