The Monitor's View

Obama orders troops to Mexico border, exposing politics of illegal immigration

Obama's order for more troops to the Mexico border came only after political pressure. The president must first persuade Hispanic voters of the need for long-term security of the border before legalization of illegal immigrants in the US.

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President Obama’s pursuit of immigration reform this year is pushing him in directions he may not have intended to go.

His administration claims it is doing enough to guard the US-Mexico border. On Wednesday, however, Mr. Obama quietly relented to requests from Republican and some Democratic lawmakers for even more security. He ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to support the US Border Patrol and asked Congress for an additional $500 million for enforcement.

These steps don’t go nearly far enough, however, for officials in border states, especially hard-hit Arizona where illegal immigrants and drug smugglers are of great concern. There states want enough troops, agents, helicopters etc. to deter anyone even attempting to enter the US illegally – and to end the spillover of Mexico’s war on drug lords.

Despite the economic recession, hundreds of thousands of migrants and drug smugglers still sneak in, often endangering lives, including their own. And the recent killing of a rancher in Arizona, with police saying the suspect may be a drug smuggler, only adds to the intensity of the national debate.

Obama is trying to walk a fine line between those seeking more border security and those seeking to legalize some 10 million illegal aliens in the US. But there is also a strong hint of raw politics.

To keep a Democratic majority in Congress, Obama needs a high turnout of Hispanic voters in the fall elections. He can do that with the passage of a reform bill that would, among other things, legalize illegal migrants. Or, if the bill fails, he may try to blame Republicans, stirring up Hispanics to vote out of anger.

But he has one problem: Many Democratic lawmakers oppose any sort of legalization now. They, too, want the government to first demonstrate its long-term control over the US border.

A serious crackdown only began in 2006 under President Bush during the last push for immigration reform. While Obama has continued much of that effort, he has dropped the electronic fence program and largely given up on workplace enforcement. To many critics, he’s not doing enough and needs to do more.

To reward illegal immigrants now with official status, say many lawmakers of both parties, would only invite future waves of border-crossers who might believe that they, too, could be granted permanent US residency someday. That’s exactly what happened after the last amnesty in 1986. It can be avoided under the proposed legalization – but only if the border is firmly secure.

This is the simple logic of national security, supported widely in the polls. But it doesn’t fit Obama’s political calculus of securing the Hispanic turnout. He appears to be straddling, which explains his gesture of sending in National Guard troops – far fewer than requested. Tellingly, the news of his decision broke not from the White House but from a Democratic lawmaker.

Such a weak response hardly demonstrates the kind of decades-long national commitment needed for border security. The administration continues to largely ignore specific pleas for help from governors in border states. This indifference may have contributed to Arizona passing a law that will force local police to arrest illegal immigrants.

(For the Monitor's View of the new Arizona law, click here.)

To really win over Hispanic voters, Obama needs to appeal to their patriotism, not their ethnicity – the kind of patriotism that insists on upholding US law and security. Taking that high ground first will befit a commander in chief seeking to be president for all Americans.

Then he will be able to more easily find common ground in Congress for a solution to the issue of illegal immigrants already in the US.

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