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Obama Immigration Speech: Policy or Politics?

4 years ago
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On Thursday, President Obama is to take the stage at Washington, D.C.'s American University to make the case for comprehensive immigration reform. The issue has raised temperatures across the country, dividing those calling for tough border protection and rigid policing of illegal immigrants from those who favor less punitive measures and broader integration.

Perhaps nowhere is this schism more evident than in Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed into law a controversial measure that gives law enforcement officials unprecedented authority to question anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. But as incendiary as the law is -- and as much it can make both supporters and detractors equally red-faced (crimson, even!) -- the question remains: Does the White House really think it can get an immigration reform bill through Congress this year?

Though reform has enjoyed bipartisan support in previous years, the two principal GOP shepherds on the issue, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- are nowhere to be seen. The issue has been particularly tricky for Republicans wanting to appear tough on national security, but likewise in need of Latino support (a group for whom immigration is a particularly hot-button issue). Support for tough, controversial measures like Brewer's hurts conservative candidates among this key voting bloc; the result is that many Republicans simply refuse to play ball. Republicans "have paid a tremendous price" for their inaction, says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a center-left Democratic think tank. "There is no way, politically, that they can sustain their current position."

The Democrats, for their part, don't have the votes to pass immigration reform on their own, especially with some of their own flock unwilling to tackle legislation in an election year. So, as my colleague Walter Shapiro has noted, while Obama (and the Dems) may very much want to see comprehensive immigration reform (beyond just closing their eyes and wishing for it very, very hard), the issue might just be a convenient wedge to galvanize Hispanic turnout (and subsequent support for Democratic candidates) in the midterm elections. Which begs the question: Is Obama's speech on Thursday about politics or policy?

Even the White House seems skeptical that the president will present anything new. Speaking with the press aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton offered, "I think a lot of the elements [in his speech] will be familiar." When asked whether Obama might offer a timeline for passage of comprehensive reform, Burton replied, " I don't anticipate a specific timeline, no." Instead, the White House offered this as the reason for "why immigration" and "why now?" Said Burton, "[The president] thought this was a good time to talk plainly with the American people about his views on immigration. Most specifically, he thinks this debate is about accountability for securing the border, accountability for employers who are hiring illegal immigrants, and accountability for those who are in this country illegally." Did you notice how many "accountabilites" that was? You can almost hear the finger pointing.

Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, a pro-immigration business advocacy group, thinks it's important for the president "to do more than pander to his base and blame Republicans. The Arizona law is polarizing, with 60 percent of the public supporting the law and 40 percent denouncing supporters as bigots. It has made advocates on both sides even angrier. Hopefully, Obama will use the occasion to bridge the gap and diffuse the polarization. He should speak to those who think the Arizona law is good and say 'We understand you.'"

As to whether we might see actual reform any time soon, Jacoby acknowledged the skepticism, saying, "Never say never, but the chances of something moving on immigration reform this year are slim." Rosenberg was less pessimistic, saying, "There's more pressure on those in Washington to do something -- whether in next 6 months or next year, I don't know. But I think we're in new phase of the debate. It's become harder and harder for anyone to justify a lack of action on this issue. Everyone wants a better immigration system -- it would be in the best interest of the Republican Party to make amends and get this thing done."

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