Obama's immigration straddle

If he wants Americans to consider a "path to citizenship" for illegal aliens, he'll have to lead on "enforcement first."

On the campaign trail, President Obama promised to make immigration reform a top priority in his first year as president. Now that he's in the White House, he's dragging his heels.

After two postponements, he'll meet with a select group of lawmakers on Thursday to discuss legislation. So far, he's set neither a timeline for a bill, nor outlined one.

The difference between the campaign trail and the Oval Office is political reality. As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admitted last week, "The votes aren't there right now."

For one thing, the timing is all wrong. A move to put the country's 11.6 million illegal immigrants on a "path to citizenship" – and legal jobs – would upset Americans mired in a deep recession.

Meanwhile, the White House has put two big legislative priorities ahead of immigration this year: healthcare and energy. That's a lot for Congress to digest – maybe too much.

Then there's politics. The president owes voters who backed him in swing states such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Ohio; many of them strenuously oppose what is seen as amnesty in disguise. On the other hand, he's indebted to Latino voters who helped him carry the key swing states of New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. Indeed, the Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid from Nevada, vows to move on immigration reform this year.

This leaves Obama in the role of a circus performer, trying to straddle two horses at once:

He's trying to keep one group with him by continuing many of President Bush's enforcement policies – and by even expanding them. His budget proposes increased funding for E-Verify (the electronic system that allows employers to check the legal status of their workers); more money to hire people to identify criminal illegal immigrants in US jails and prisons – and then deport them; and a commitment to put a barrier of electronic detectors along the Mexican border.

With the other group, the president is refocusing raids on the managers and owners who hire illegal immigrants rather than on the migrants themselves. The Justice Department recently reversed a Bush ruling that had denied effective legal representation to illegal immigrants facing deportation. By concentrating on employers, criminal illegal aliens, and smuggling networks, the total number of deportations will likely fall.

The president's straddling can work for the time being. But unless he wants to end up in the sawdust, acrobat Obama will eventually have to hop on one horse and lead the way. That would have to be the horse named "Enforcement First."

The president should take his cue from Michael Chertoff, the head of homeland security for President Bush. Mr. Chertoff found that the big lesson from failed immigration reform in 2007 was that most Americans want to make sure the law is being enforced before they'll consider anything else.

Obama, too, understands the importance of enforcement. "The American people believe in immigration, but they also believe that we can't tolerate a situation where people come to the United States in violation of the law," he said last week at a Hispanic prayer breakfast. But does he fully perceive the importance of "first?"

If he wants immigration reform, there is no other way than proving his administration is willing and able to uphold the law – first. It must show – through tighter borders, sustained pressure on employers, and reduced numbers of illegal immigrants – that it has the will to enforce the law now and after reform (the last big reform in the 1980s simply helped increase the flow of illegal immigration).

Proving commitment to enforcement will take time and results, and will require gentle persuasion for patience among the backers of citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Political reality affords Obama some time. But only he can deliver the results, and the persuasion.

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