Obama Plays Election-Year Politics on Immigration

"Years before the statue was built," Barack Obama began the peroration of his June 30 speech on immigration, Emma Lazarus "imagined what it could mean."

Actually, the French sculptor Bartholdi was at work on the Statue of Liberty before Lazarus published her famous "give me your tired" poem in 1883. (The statue was assembled in New York Harbor two years later and dedicated in 1886.)

The speech itself was similarly misleading. Obama, as he so often does, told us we must start "being honest about the problem and getting past the false debates that divide the country rather than bring it together." But even as presenting a fair description of some immigration issues, Obama got in some false debating of his own.

He criticized the "ill conceived" Arizona law authorizing state and local law enforcement officers to ascertain the legal status of those stopped for other reasons, just as federal officials already can, and presented two serious arguments against it--that it discourages cooperation with local police and subjects Hispanic-appearing Americans to questions others would not be asked.

The most misleading thing about the speech was Obama's attempt to put the onus of non-action on the party currently in the minority in both the Senate and House.

But he also said it would put pressure on state and local budgets without stating how (isn't that Arizona's problem?) and seeks to "enforce rules that ultimately are unenforceable." But federal law has required legal immigrants to carry proof of status for decades, and if that law is unenforceable we might as well throw up our hands.

Obama went back in history to take shots at the Alien and Sedition Acts, repealed in 1802, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, repealed in 1943. He was apparently trying to depict America as unwelcoming to immigrants, even though the nation has welcomed more immigrants than any other.

But the most misleading thing about the speech was Obama's attempt to put the onus of non-action on the party currently in the minority in both the Senate and House.

"The majority of Democrats are ready to move forward," he said, though this is far from apparent. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has refused to bring the issue up until the Senate acts, out of unwillingness to ask her Democrats to cast tough votes, though she was willing to do that a year ago on the cap-and-trade bill--evidently a higher priority for her--and this year asked them to cast tough votes for the Senate-passed health care bill.

Obama summoned up memories of the bipartisan coalitions in the Senate for comprehensive immigration bills in 2006 and 2007, then added that "now, under the pressures of partisanship and election-year politics, many of the 11 Republican senators who voted for reform in the past have now backed away from their previous support."

But the same could be said of some Democratic senators. As Immigration Works, a pro-comprehensive immigration bill lobby, put it, "the president is still scolding and blaming Republicans rather than appealing to them in terms that might draw them into a serious effort to compromise on a bill."

The group might have added that as a senator Obama himself voted for at least one amendment labeled as a "poison pill" by Edward Kennedy and other leaders of the bipartisan effort in 2007. Kennedy knew that you had to disappoint some liberal groups to hold a bipartisan coalition together. Obama, then running for president, didn't go along.

One result of the failure of the 2006 and 2007 bills has been a push for tougher enforcement at the border and workplace, beginning under George W. Bush and continuing now. Conservatives are wrong to scoff at Obama's statement that "we have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history." We do.

He might have added, but didn't, that an Arizona law requiring employers to use the federal e-Verify system has resulted in a statistically significant decline in the illegal immigrant population in that state, according to the Census Bureau. A similar federal measure might make a comprehensive bill more palatable to many Republicans and some Democrats too.

More important, the administration undermined the "bipartisan framework" proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham by its on-again off-again approach and, as on stimulus and health care legislation, has provided little or no guidance in the drafting of inevitably complex legislation.

This slapdash approach fortifies the judgment that, for all the good passages in his speech, Obama is more interested in playing election year politics than in solving the problem.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: White House/Chuck Kenned

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  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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