President Obama has again made Nevada, and specifically Las Vegas, the center of the nation’s political consciousness.
This time, he chose Las Vegas to announce his push for comprehensive reform of immigration laws. His venue was Del Sol High School in the south valley, before a house packed with leadership and rank and file from organized labor and religious and progressive organizations.
Obama, as expected, focused on his proposals to change the existing -- and, according to nearly every perspective, almost completely dysfunctional -- regimen of immigration law in three ways: Strengthen existing enforcement laws, especially with respect to the hiring of undocumented immigrants; provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who already live here, even if that means going to “the back of the line” in applying for legal residency; and overhaul an antiquated and inadequate immigration system that still divides families.
The 20-minute address had the look and feel of a campaign rally. The crowds cheered when newly elected congressional representatives Steven Horsford and Dina Titus entered the gym, even louder when President Obama entered, and again when the president referenced the “dreamers,” undocumented young men and women who were brought here by their parents, and who now can get legal residency because of an executive order from the president.
Obama tipped his hat to the bipartisan group of senators who proposed similar legislation yesterday. The group included Republicans Sen. John McCain and Sen. Marco Rubio, as the GOP seeks to repair its torn relationship with Hispanic and Latino voters; the party’s candidate in the 2012 elections, Mitt Romney, got just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
The Senate proposal, which hits the same points as Obama’s, is already getting a cool reception from congressional conservatives, who blast as “amnesty” any proposal that provides a potential for citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But Obama’s echo of the Senate proposal was greeted warmly in Las Vegas, which is representative of the changing demographics of the country as a whole. Nearly 30 percent of the population of Clark County is of Latino or Hispanic heritage, up from 22 percent in 2000, according to the Census. Nationally, 18 percent of American residents were of Latino or Hispanic heritage in 2011, compared to 12.5 percent in Census 2000.
Latino support was considered a critical factor for Obama’s 2012 victory in Nevada, where he won 71 percent of the Latino vote.
Despite the rising power of the voting bloc, Obama acknowledged the challenge of passing comprehensive immigration reform.
“I know that some issues will be harder to lift than others,” he said. “Some debates will be more contentious. That’s to be expected. But the reason I came here today is because of a challenge where the differences are dwindling; where a broad consensus is emerging; and where a call for action can now be heard coming from all across America. I’m here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform.”
The crowd responded -- as they had at campaign rallies throughout the 2008 and 2012 electoral contests -- by chanting “Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!)
Obama said that if Congress is unable to craft an immigration reform bill, he would propose his own changes and “insist that they [the House and Senate] vote on it right away.”
Labor and political partisans enthusiastically endorsed the speech. Some immigration lawyers in the crowd were more cautious. One Las Vegas immigration lawyer said he was disappointed that the president did not reference changes in immigration law that could benefit gay and lesbian couples, while another said she thought the speech, while important in moving comprehensive immigration forward, was “generic” and did not address specific concerns, such as the status of undocumented parents of legally residing immigrants.
But those comments were quibbles compared to the overwhelmingly positive reaction of most of the crowd. The other shoe, however, will show up in the coming days and weeks, as nativist opponents to both legal and unapproved immigration turn up the heat against the Senate and White House proposals.