“Barack Obama is the first Hispanic president the same way Bill Clinton was the first black” president, Rivera said at the conference, which took place Thursday at the U.S. Capitol.
Rivera also said the Hispanic community should “give the president some slack” in keeping that promise on immigration reform, given the pressing problems with the economy and other priorities, including health care.
At the conference’s morning panel, experts and activists called on the Obama administration to champion “rational” immigration reform that would give the estimated 12 to 14 million people who are in the country illegally a path to citizenship.
Panelist Kathleen Walker, past national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she wanted to avoid the “A-word,” or amnesty, but said there is a direct link between the future health of the economy and the millions of illegal aliens who are working in the United States.
Rivera proposed steps he said could be done “within the end of this week,” such as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordering the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel to “stop the raids” and concentrate on stopping the drug cartels and Mexican gangs responsible for most of the more than 7,000 deaths south of the border in the last 14 months.
“ICE must be redirected to the mandate that Congress established for ICE in the wake of the 9/11 attacks,” Rivera said. “They are designed to fight terrorist immigrants. Not to go after the 12 million who are only pursuing a decent existence for their family.”
He also said that illegal aliens should be allowed to join the military, which could make them eligible to become citizens at the end of their service.
When asked by a participant at the event what could be done to get the media to support comprehensive immigration reform, Rivera said people who are against it have a “truly hateful, deep sentiment” and a “deep nativist thing.”
“Some of them have never seen a Hispanic person in person, much less an undocumented or illegal worker,” he said.
Rivera said the media has a role in that sentiment.
“You’re not going to get any help from the media, I can tell you that much,” Rivera said. “If you want to cure a low-rated program or unpopular host, all you have to do is bash an undocumented immigrant or illegal alien.”
“That is the surest way to success in today’s talk radio and cable TV world, and I challenge anyone who contradicts me,” he said.
“The reality is, the other side of the immigration debate controls the American media,” Rivera said.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, spearheaded the conference. Last year, Reyes’ relative was kidnapped in Mexico and recovered through what he said was cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican authorities.
According to the U.S. State Department, “hundreds of Americans” have been kidnapped in Mexico in recent years, and the department does not track the kidnappings because of sovereignty issues.
Other panelists in the morning session were Aracely Garcia Granados, executive director of Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together, and Laura Vazquez, immigration legislative analyst with the National Council of La Raza.
Juan Hernandez, who has dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship and served as an advisor to former Mexican President Vicente Fox, moderated the panel.