SAN DIEGO — Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, speaking Saturday to the nation's largest Latino civil rights organization, urged its members to campaign hard for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, saying the presumptive nominee was their best hope for reforming federal immigration policies.
In his address to thousands attending the National Council of La Raza conference, Villaraigosa criticized the Bush administration for what he called its "selective enforcement" of immigration laws. He said that the federal government should focus its efforts on "criminals instead of working people," and that current enforcement practices unfairly tear families apart and punish small businesses. Instead, he said, authorities should be going after illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
Villaraigosa invoked the imagery of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming all immigrants, to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric he said is pervasive on talk radio and cable television. He touched on the ethnic undertones of the federal barrier being constructed along the Mexican border, saying he was thankful that the U.S. never built a wall to keep out Irish immigrants or considered erecting a massive fence along the Canadian border.
For the last two weeks, Villaraigosa, who had been a prominent backer of Obama's one-time rival N.Y. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, has taken a very active and public role in selling Obama to Latino voters. A week ago, at the Obama campaign's request, he defended the Illinois senator's record after Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona ran a Spanish-language radio ad accusing Obama of only now recognizing the importance of the Latino vote. On Tuesday, Villaraigosa flew to Washington to introduce Obama at the League of Latin American Citizens convention.