This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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Obama spoke to a major U.S. Hispanic group earlier this week about his unsuccessful efforts to change this country's outdated immigration rules, many in the crowd broke out in a spontaneous chant: "Yes, you can!"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 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 they 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 Aug. 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 benefiting 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!
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; e-mail: aoppenheimermiamiherald.com.