While the ostensible purpose of President Obama’s speech at American University this morning on immigration reform was to put forward a realistic proposal, it was clear that his main intent was to try and put Republicans on the spot.
Calling, as he is fond of doing on every issue, for others to put aside politics, he specifically challenged the GOP to support his rather loosely defined plan that called for giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, an attempt to control the border as well as rationalizing the complex and largely unfair existing immigration statutes. He claimed that he was merely being forced to clean up the mess left behind by others since he “won’t just kick the can down the road” on this issue. Asserting that the Democrats are behind him, he said the whole question of reform would rest on whether Republicans would join him on the issue. It was only toward the end of the speech that he acknowledged in passing that his “predecessor” had “shown courage” on the issue. In fact, George W. Bush put forward a not dissimilar package of immigration reform in 2005.
It’s no secret that the chances of passage of any such bill in the current Congress are less than nil. Far from a stark partisan division on the issue, many Democrats have indulged in the same sort of “demagoguery” on immigration that Obama seemed to imply was limited to Republicans. In fact, had the Democrats in Congress been united and passionate advocates of this cause, President Bush would have succeeded in his attempt to do more or less what Obama says he wants to accomplish. It is a testament to Obama’s knowledge of this political reality that he did not spend much of his speech bashing the controversial Arizona law enabling law-enforcement personnel to inquire about the immigration status of a person already in trouble with the law. Nor did he follow Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s lead when she recently told a South American journalist that Obama would order the Justice Department to sue Arizona to stop the measure’s enforcement. Indeed, the worst he said of the law was that it was “divisive.”
It is an unfortunate fact that many on the right have boxed themselves in on immigration to the point where any position on it other than a call for a draconian crackdown on illegals and mass deportation (which Obama rightly claims is unrealistic) is considered akin to amnesty. While the president attempted to pose somewhat disingenuously as the man between two extremes, by offering those here illegally a path to citizenship (preceded by paying a fine, waiting in line behind those who have applied via the legal apparatus, and learning English), he is unlikely to get much support from many conservatives or moderates from either party. That’s a shame, since Obama’s proposals, like those of Bush before him, constitute nothing more than recognition of reality in terms of both law enforcement and the undeniable demand that exists here for low-wage foreign workers. While neither this Congress nor its successor is likely to pass such a bill, that does not mean that it shouldn’t.
But unlike Bush, who unveiled his immigration plan at the start of his second term hoping (in vain, as it turned out) to cash in some of his political capital on an issue he cared about, Obama’s purpose here seems to be about politics, not principle, as he is hoping that Hispanics will blame Republicans for the inevitable failure of this proposal. While this may ratchet up the Hispanic vote for the Democrats, it’s hard to see how this will work in a midterm election in which many Democrats around the country are just as likely to resent illegal immigrants as Republicans.