In Detroit, Obama hails the auto industry’s comeback. Meanwhile, a report indicates illegal immigration is at a 10-year low – contrary to Republican talking points – as the Supreme Court agrees to review the volatile issue.
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
DETROIT – President Barack Obama got a real taste of Detroit on Wednesday, grabbing lunch at a neighborhood brewery and making a watch purchase at a nearby Shinola store before heading downtown to spend a half-hour at the North American International Auto Show, a first for Obama as president.
As the president visited the Motor City, immigration took center stage again.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to determine whether he has the authority to unilaterally provide temporary relief to illegal immigrants on the same day a report revealed that illegal immigration is at its lowest level in 10 years.
The lunch and shopping stop were part of a day designed to celebrate the resurgence of the domestic automotive industry and the city of Detroit, both of which went through bankruptcy within the last five years before re-emerging, the auto industry with record sales last year, and the city with a rebuilding boom.
“The year before I took office, the auto industry laid off 400,000. We were in a free fall,” Obama said during a speech at a United Auto Workers-General Motors human resources facility. “There were no private investors who were going to step up…More than 1 million Americans would have lost their jobs. And not just in the auto industry. Their livelihoods were at stake as well.”
U.S. auto manufacturing employment has climbed 49 percent from its low point of 623,300 in June 2009 when General Motors and Chrysler were in the midst of their $182 billion taxpayer-funded bailout, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But with 929,400 such jobs in existence as of December 2015, industry employment remains significantly below its January 2005 level of 1.1 million jobs.
Lunch and cars
Obama and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan made an unscheduled stop at the Jolly Pumpkin brewery, where they dined with Tom Kartsotis, the founder of the Shinola watch company; Tolulope Sonuyi, a physician who works with Detroit youths in violence prevention and intervention programs; and Teana Dowdell, an autoworker at a Detroit-area GM plant. After lunch and the Shinola stop, it was off to downtown to take in the auto show.
His first stop was a ZF automated driving display. He then went and checked out the Fiat Chrysler Automobile plug-in hybrid model of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which was unveiled at the show.
Then it was on to the 2017 Chevy Bolt, the new electric vehicle with a 200-mile range, after first admiring a bright yellow Corvette, then got into a metallic orange Bolt. Finally he swung by the Ford stand where he saw the Ford Escape Hybrid.
‘Work to do’
At the UAW-GM center along the riverfront, the president was welcomed by some of the people whose jobs and plants were in jeopardy seven years ago.
“There’s still plenty of work to do, but you can feel something special happening in Detroit,” Obama said. “When you hear people claiming America is in decline, they don’t know what they’re talking about. These are the same folks that would have let this industry go under.”
The auto renaissance has been dampened in recent weeks in a global market roiled by a slowdown in China and collapsing oil prices.
Fiat Chrysler shares fell as much as 7 percent Wednesday to a new 52-week low of $6.60 before rebounding slightly to $6.89. GM closed Wednesday at $29.42, down from the $34.01 it traded at on Dec. 31. Ford shares are down nearly 17 percent from the first of the year.
It was GM’s growth and profits from China that carried it through the Great Recession. Now the company’s recovery in North America is offsetting the troubles in China and other emerging markets.
Thinking about Flint
While Obama wasn’t traveling to Flint to examine the city’s water crisis firsthand, he mentioned the city’s ongoing crisis in his remarks.
“The only job that’s more important to me than president is the job of father,” he said. “I would be beside myself if my kids’ health would be at risk,” he said.
“Yesterday I met with Mayor (Karen) Weaver and I told her we’re going to have her back and all the people of Flint’s back as they work their way through this terrible tragedy. It is a reminder why you can’t shortchange basic services you provide your people.”
Lowest in years
The president got good news when a new study by the Center for Migration Studies estimated that 10.9 million immigrants are living in the country without authorization. That is the lowest level since 2003 and the first time the number has dipped below 11 million since 2004.
A steady decline in illegal immigration, which has been documented by previous studies, runs counter to the widespread image on the Republican presidential campaign trail of a rise in illegal border crossers.
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s has said illegal immigration rates are “beyond belief” and has claimed immigrants bringing crime and disease are “just pouring across the border.”
Trump has pledged mass deportations and a giant border wall, while criticizing as weak his more moderate rivals, such as Jeb Bush, who has proposed giving immigrants already in the country a path to legal status.
Going back home
According to the report, written by a prominent former government demographics expert, illegal immigration has dropped steadily since 2008, driven in part by a large number of immigrants from Mexico returning home.
Since 2010, the number of Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally declined by about 612,000, or 9 percent, the report found.
The size of California’s unauthorized Mexican immigrant population shrank by about 250,000 between 2010 and 2014, the study found. The state’s overall population of unauthorized immigrants fell by 318,000 to a total of just under 2.6 million during that time.
‘Ups and downs’
The declines correspond with the onset of the Great Recession and with an increase in the number of deportations under President Obama, said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University. He noted that many immigrants work in parts of the economy, notably construction and hospitality, that suffer disproportionately during economic downturns.
Immigrants “have been exposed to the ups and downs of the American economy in ways that people in other sectors have not been,” he said.
Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, pointed to another factor: lower birth rates in Mexico. With less competition for jobs in Mexico, there may be less pressure to head north to find work.
Pastor said Trump’s heated rhetoric about the growing threat of illegal immigration is “detached from reality,” and partly the product of a presidential primary system in which Republican candidates have competed to appeal to their party’s most conservative – mostly White – voters.
Pastor noted “growing demographic anxieties” among White Americans about the country’s rapidly changing racial and ethnic makeup and said Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric plays into that. “This is a very racialized debate,” he said.
While the report found declines in the number of unauthorized immigrants from South America, the Caribbean and Europe, it reported an increase in the number of immigrants crossing illegally from Central America, an area gripped with poverty and rising violence in recent years.
Court weighs in
The U. S. Supreme Court set the stage for what could be a landmark ruling on immigration law and presidential power when it agreed Tuesday to decide whether Obama has the authority to offer a “lawful presence” and a work permit to as many as 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
The decision is likely to come this June in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign, in which the question of how to cope with the nation’s immigration problem has deeply divided the two political parties.
At issue for the court is whether current law gives the president power to temporarily shield millions of longtime immigrants from deportation. At the request of Texas state lawyers who are suing to block the president’s program, the justices also agreed to decide whether Obama violated his constitutional duty by failing to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
If the court rules that Obama overstepped his authority, it would send the message that only Congress can change and reform the nation’s immigration laws. On the other hand, justices had given the executive branch broad discretion in setting deportation policy.
Even if Obama wins, he may run out of time to fully implement the program before leaving office, making it easier for a future GOP president to unwind it.
Under the best-case scenario for the president, he would have only six months to implement the program – enough time to process a few hundred thousand applications, experts estimate. That could leave the next occupant of the Oval Office with a backlog of millions of applications from anxious immigrants.
Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders would almost certainly continue the program, but GOP front-runners Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas could face a dilemma.
By making good on promises to be tough on amnesty for immigrants here illegally, a future GOP president would be faced with the prospect of deporting people who voluntarily came forward to follow the rules – a dramatic and memorable moment to begin the new presidency.
Obama unveiled his sweeping immigration program last year. It would temporarily suspend deportation for as many as 4 million immigrant parents of U.S. citizens.
This so-called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA, was patterned after a 2012 plan, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offered similar relief to about 600,000 young people who had been brought into the country illegally as small children.
Several hundred thousand additional immigrants were to qualify for deportation deferral under a separate expansion of the DACA program that Obama announced in November 2014.
Nothing from Congress
Obama said he was taking executive action as a last resort amid congressional deadlock. In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration overhaul on a 68-32 vote, but House Republican leaders refused to bring the bill to a vote.
States had not fared well when seeking to influence immigration policy. Three years ago, the justices rejected key provisions of an Arizona law that would have empowered Arizona police to stop, question and arrest people who could not show they were citizens.
By a 5-3 vote, the justices said the president and his executive officers have “broad discretion” over immigration policy, including enforcement and deciding who should be arrested and deported.
Kathleen Gray and Greg Gardner of the Detroit Free Press; Kate Linthicum of the Los Angeles Times; David G. Savage and Christi Parsons of the Tribune Washington Bureau; and Del Quentin Wilber and Angela Greiling Keane of Bloomberg News (TNS) all contributed to this report.