MEXICO CITY — After battling through health care and finance reform, U.S. President Barack Obama waded into one of the most contentious issues of all – immigration – advocating a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal migrants.
But while his proposal, made during a speech Thursday, promised sweeping change, it was greeted by little applause either in Mexico – the country that sends the highest number of undocumented workers to the United States – or in migrant communities north of the border.
After a 2006 bill on amnesty ended with the building of a border fence, few were optimistic that Obama’s proposal would conclude any differently.
“This wasn’t a policy speech. It was an election speech,” said Jorge Mujica, a Mexican-born migrant activist based in Chicago. “He wants to get the Latino vote in the midterm elections but he is not showing any real will for reform.”
In his speech, Obama stressed that a recent enforcement law in Arizona had fanned the flames of the debate and that Americans could not let a divisive political climate stand in the way of resolving important issues.
“This administration will not just kick the can down the road. Immigration reform is no exception,” he told the audience at the American University on Thursday. “In sum, the system is broken and everybody knows it. Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special interest wrangling.”
But many activists felt that Obama betrayed his lack of will for change by saying it was “the political and mathematical reality” that the Republicans had to be on board for any bill to pass.
Activists said that hammering out major bipartisan support for an immigration reform bill, especially before the November vote, seemed like an impossible task.
“They passed health reform without major Republican consensus so why is immigration different?” asked Mujica. “Latinos voted for Obama because he promised change.”
In migrant communities across Mexico, people shared the same doubts.
Rafael Ramirez, a Mexico City mechanic who has been going back and forth to work in California for 20 years, said he saw little reason to be hopeful.
“You think that change is coming and then you just get let down again and again,” said Ramirez, whose two sons are currently working in San Francisco without papers. “Now, it is hard to imagine a time when we are not risking our lives crossing the desert to earn some dollars.”
About half of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States were born in Mexico.
Last year, Mexicans in the United States sent home $21.2 billion in remittances, providing the nation with its second biggest source of foreign currency after oil exports.
Despite such economic clout, the struggle for these migrants to obtain legal recognition has been met with a series of disappointments over the last decade.
On Sept. 6, 2001, Vicente Fox became the first Mexican president to address a joint session of Congress, giving a speech imploring an overhaul in the immigration system.
Five days later, the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington shoved any immigration reform onto the backburner as the United States marched into war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In January 2004, former U.S. President George W. Bush proposed a new guest worker program for millions of migrants, only to leave that proposal on hold as he prepared for his reelection campaign.
Then, in 2006, a series of historic demonstrations sparked heated debate in the U.S. Congress over amnesty and guest worker programs. But lawmakers ultimately discarded those proposals, choosing instead to approve the extension of the border fence and the placement of more border guards.
Unlike his predecessor, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has invested little time and energy fighting for migrant rights.
In the day following Obama’s speech, Calderon was notably silent on the issue while making various statements about the war on drugs and other unrelated matters.
Some pundits argue that the Mexican president has been smart to recognize that his statements could only have a negative impact, being used by reform opponents as evidence of foreign meddling.
Others here see Calderon as being wise not to put political capital into an issue it is very hard to win ground on.
The activist Mujica is more cynical, arguing that the Calderon administration cares little about the conditions of Mexicans in the United States as long as they are sending money home.
“Calderon is too busy trying to collect money for his war on drugs,” Mujica said. “If there was a new guest worker program on the table, he would be happy because that would help him reduce poverty. But he doesn’t give a damn about people who are already here.”