President Obama is taking on one of the most divisive issues in American politics, making a renewed case for comprehensive immigration reform in a speech in El Paso, Texas on Tuesday. He'll highlight the administration's accomplishments in securing the border, as well as the economic reasons for immigration legislation.
Mr. Obama hopes to “create a sense of urgency, around the country, that matches his sense of urgency on the issue,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity
Obama will release a “blueprint” outlining both his policy and the necessity of action, the official added.
Obama has spoken before about the need for comprehensive reform – including both tighter enforcement and a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants – but immigration has largely taken a backseat to other issues in the first two years of his presidency. He pushed in December to get the DREAM Act passed, which would have given a path to citizenship to some immigrants brought into the US as children, but the effort failed, deeply disappointing many.
Now, though, Obama is signaling a willingness to put immigration front and center, perhaps in an effort to court crucial Latino votes. Tuesday's speech comes after weeks of meetings on immigration with leaders in the business, faith, law enforcement, and Hispanic communities.
States take action on immigration
The president's push on immigration started shortly after he announced his reelection campaign, at a time when many states are taking their own action on immigration – often in direct opposition to the federal government.
Georgia’s state legislature recently passed a law similar to Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, which gives police authority to check the immigration status of people they detain. Other states are considering similar laws.
At the same time, a number of blue states are pushing back at the administration’s “Secure Communities” initiative. The program seeks to apprehend and deport illegal immigrants guilty of serious crimes by sharing the fingerprints of anyone booked into a local or county jail with the Department of Homeland Security. Critics say that the vast majority of those deported under Secure Communities are guilty of only minor offenses or no crime at all.
Last week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) announced he was pulling the state out of the program, and on Monday, a group of New York lawmakers urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to do the same. Communities in Massachusetts, California, and Maryland have also voiced opposition to the program, which is supposed to expand to all jurisdictions by 2013.
“It’s clear there’s a president who’s feeling pressure from all points on the compass,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which favors comprehensive reform.
Others see Obama’s current focus as a result of dissatisfaction among voters on the immigration problem.
“It’s a message not only to Latino voters, but also to other people that he’s taking this issue seriously, despite some of the things he has working against him,” says Audrey Singer, an immigration expert at the Brookings Institution. “The state and local pushes and pulls are actually starting to have a collective effect.”
The Mexico-US border
Obama is traveling to the border for his speech, in part to emphasize his administration's accomplishments with respect to border security. According to a senior administration official, nearly all of the 652 miles of fence mandated by Congress has been completed; border agents have been heavily increased; seizures of contraband have risen; and illegal immigration attempts have decreased 36 percent in the past two years, down to less than one-third what they were ten years ago, at their peak.
“Taken as a whole, the manpower, resources, and technology represent the most sustained actions securing our Southwest border ever in our nation’s history,” said the official. “This is as secure a border as there has ever been.”
Still, many Republicans and anti-immigration groups see more work to be done. Last month, Arizona Sens. John McCain (R) and John Kyl (R) called for increased enforcement and released a 10-point plan for border security, saying that border violence has “spiraled out of control."
“The problem with the debate around immigration reform is that people are stuck in the way they feel about things,” says Ms. Singer. “When you look at Obama’s record … it looks like he’s been stronger than his predecessor on enforcement issues. But people vehemently opposed to leniency toward immigrants in the US are never going to see that.”
At Tuesday's speech, Obama will make the economic case for immigration reform, arguing that it is necessary for continued growth. “Comprehensive immigration reform would be a plus, not a drag, on the federal budget,” says another senior administration official, speaking on background before the speech.
That’s an argument that NumbersUSA President Roy Beck, who opposes immigration, calls “smoke and mirrors,” given the level of unemployment right now.
No matter how concerted the effort by the Obama administration, congressional action is unlikely. The last big push for reform in 2007, under President Bush, failed, despite strong backing from a Republican president and a Democratic-controlled Congress. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has repeatedly said that any legislation including a form of amnesty will be nonstarter.
Some critics see the current immigration focus as simple pandering for votes, rather than a genuine effort to find consensus.
“It’s convenient that this is coming on the heels of his announcement as a candidate,” says Kristen Williamson, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes amnesty. Ms. Williamson criticized Obama for only reaching out to like-minded people in his recent meetings on immigration, rather than to congressmen or border politicians who might disagree with him.
“He’s using immigration as a political wedge issue rather than making this about what the country really needs,” she says.