Former President Barack Obama said Sunday that the Republican Party is standing in the way of immigration reform and embracing rhetoric that is dangerous for the country.

Obama’s comments came during an in-person question-and-answer keynote at San Diego’s annual L’Attitude conference at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. The event spotlights Latino business, innovation and consumers.

“Right now, the biggest fuel behind the Republican agenda is related to immigration and the fear that somehow America’s character is going to be changed if, people of darker shades, there are too many of them here,” Obama told moderator Gary Acosta, the co-founder and CEO of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

“I wish I could be more euphemistic about it except (they’re) not that subtle about it — they’re just kind of saying it,” Obama said. “You hear it on hard-right media, you hear it from candidates and politicians, you hear things like ‘great replacement theory’ — I mean, this is not subtle. Unless we’re able to return to a more inclusive vision inside the Republican Party, it’s going to be hard to get a bill done.”

The “great replacement theory” falsely asserts that there’s an active and ongoing effort to replace the White majority with non-Whites, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.


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Such language prevalent today is “dangerous,” Obama said.

“A lot of toxic rhetoric in the atmosphere that characterizes ‘those people’ as ‘different’ and wanting to ‘tear down America’ as opposed to build it up,” he said. “When you have that kind of rhetoric floating around out there, we’ve seen in history that is dangerous rhetoric. It’s dangerous wherever it appears and it’s dangerous here in the United States.

“It’s not part of what’s best in us; it’s not part of what makes this country exceptional.”

Obama said he did not mean to be partisan and acknowledged the Democratic Party’s history as the party of segregation. He also noted some ambivalence among American Latinos on the issue of immigration, noting that Latino voting rates in Texas lagged that of Colorado and California Latinos.

“If Latinos in Texas voted at the same rate as Latinos in Colorado, Texas would be a blue state,” Obama said. “Culturally, we haven’t built up voting habits and connected that to power. In no other parts of your life do you just give your power away.”

Obama did not mention his successor, former President Donald Trump, by name during the one-hour discussion. He did, however, reference Trump twice — once as the driving force behind the GOP’s embrace of restrictive immigration policies and again to highlight Trump’s continuing refusal to accept the result of the 2020 election.

Obama’s jab at Trump came as he lamented how the proliferation of COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies prevented millions in the U.S. from taking the shots, likely resulting in preventable deaths. He pivoted from vaccine misinformation to election disinformation.

“It goes beyond just that — I mean look at elections,” Obama said. “We used to have arguments about policy. But now, people just make stuff up: ‘I didn’t lose.'”

The line was one of several that received applause from the crowd of about 1,500.

Other topics that came up during the Q&A were centered on the conference’s theme, “the new mainstream economy,” a nod to the economic power and influence of the more than 62 million Latinos in the U.S.

Obama said it’s not enough for business to have diverse leaders — they also need to listen to them.

“If you want to make good decisions you have to have as many points of view as possible, because we all have blind spots,” Obama said. “And that means, for example, that it’s been shown time and time again that the more women you have on the board, the more successful you company (will be).

Conference attendees staked spots in line as early as 5:30 a.m. — almost six hours before the former president’s keynote.

Bethy Beas, a real estate broker from McAllen, Texas, said she was among the first in line at the hotel’s Seaport Ballroom.

Her forethought appeared to pay off. By 9:30, a line of thousands stretched from the second-floor ballroom and around the event space to the first floor lobby.

Karen Carreno, 32, said that as a DACA recipient, that Obama had “changed her life.”

DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — is an Obama-era policy that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to work and live in the country.

Carreno, who came to San Diego from McAllen with Beas, said she appreciated San Diego’s status as a border city like McAllen.

“People are really welcoming,” she said. “There’s overwhelming love and pride for our heritage.”

Chumahan Bowen, an attorney from Santa Ana, said he staked his spot in line at 5:30 a.m. As a Native American and member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Bowen said he is inspired by what’s possible for people of color in the U.S.

“Mr. Obama represents what this country’s capable of,” he said.

After the hour-long keynote, Jacqui Gibbs, a bank lending manager from Newark, N.J., said she connected with Obama’s message about listening to communities who aren’t always given a voice.

“I am one of the few African Americans in the audience,” she said, “and it was as if he was speaking to a group of African Americans — a lot of the same things apply.”

Gibbs said Obama’s parting comments about listening and empowering the next generation stood out to her most.

“It was powerful to hear,” she said.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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