Advancing a Free Society

If the President Really Wanted Immigration Reform

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tuesday found President Obama in El Paso, delivering a speech on the need for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.

The President offered a “blueprint” for reform – outlining both a plan for bringing illegal aliens into the mainstream and the need for taking action (here’s the White House’s pdf). And then he called on Congress to work with him.

And therein lies the rub . . .

If the President indeed were serious about achieving immigration reform, he would not have started by giving a speech adorned with plenty of political trappings. And make no mistake: the President’s trip to Texas was fraught with campaign overtones. He chose to spoke close to the border, senior administration aides, to underscore miles of fence constructed, border agents increases, contraband seized and attempted illegal crossing on the decline.

The message being: the federal government is suitably tough on immigration, now we need to be suitably compassionate – a message tailored to Latino voters in a handful of swing states like Nevada, New Mexico and Florida that likely will decide the 2012 election.

My takeaway from all of this: it’s a missed opportunity. In the week after the raid on Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama possessed something absent since he was first elected: political capital. Suddenly, it became fashionable to say this President was decisive and risk-taking.

For Obama, this presented the option of inviting congressional leadership over to the White House (as he plans to do during the upcoming budget debate), handing them an immigration reform plan, and telling them to make it happen. Instead, the President chose to travel to Texas and, as have his predecessors, run yet another reform plan up the flagpole, knowing full-well the Republican side of Congress does not intend to salute.

Sadly, it’s a bad habit this White House seemingly can’t break. Obama let Congress drive stimulus spending; he let the House and Senate gridlock over healthcare reform, rather than drive the process with his own reform plan. Those two tactical mistakes drove his presidency into the ground.

And now: the idea that a divided Congress will find common ground on arguably the most contentious issue in American politics.

Given that the photo-op comes less than two week after a White House “summit” with such policy mavens as Eva Longoria and America Ferrera, I can only assume that the Obama Administration plans to splash around in the shallow-end of this debate. And that means a lot of lofty rhetoric and feel-good photo-ops between now and November 2012.

With little to show, in the way of progress.

(photo credit: Brian and Kristi Cordeau)