How Much Does Obama Care About Immigration Reform?"I think it's time for a president who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive (immigration) reform just because it becomes politically unpopular. I will make it a top priority in my first year as the president of the United States of America."
--Barack Obama, speech to the National Council of La Raza, July 13, 2008
The president was in Green Bay, Wis., Thursday, stumping hard for his real top legislative priority, health care reform. But saddled with his potentially awkward pledge to also press for the first major liberalization of the immigration laws in a quarter century, Obama is playing for time by resorting to that favorite dodge of temporizing presidents – a closed-door meeting.
Unlike the televised health care summit in early March, Obama is meeting in private next Wednesday with still unspecified congressional leaders to try to figure out the politics of normalizing the status of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. The legislative architecture has been in place since immigration reform first passed the Senate with 62 votes in 2006 (only to die in the House) – the carrot of a path to citizenship coupled with the stick of stricter border enforcement.
With White House aides eager to downplay expectations surrounding the meeting (which they repeatedly stress is not a summit, a trip to the mountain top, a blue-ribbon conference or a rally), immigration reform advocates remain concerned about whether Obama has worked out a short-term legislative strategy. "That the president is meeting with members of Congress is a very positive sign," said Janet Murguia, president of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization. "But there a few questions we have about the participants in the meeting. Will this be just the standard committee chairmen and vice chairmen? Or will it include the leaders who have expressed an interest in this – Senator (Mel) Martinez, Senator (John) McCain and Senator (Lindsey) Graham?"
All the senators Murguia named are Republicans, which underscores the political reality that immigration reform is either bipartisan or buried. Back in 2006, the original odd-duck coalition consisted of the Bush administration (which was surprisingly moderate on immigration issues), Republicans like McCain, and liberal Democrats led by Ted Kennedy. This time around, faced with politically skittish congressional Democrats (a phrase that may be redundant), Obama needs GOP support. As Frank Sharry, the founder of America's Voice, an advocacy group for immigration reform, put it, "John McCain has to get over his grumpiness and play on this."
At the moment, though, there is no immigration legislation, just a vague Senate timetable. New York's Chuck Schumer, an adroit dealmaker who took over the immigration subcommittee from the ailing Kennedy, has promised to have a bill ready to send to the Senate floor by the fall. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (running for reelection next year in Nevada, a state in which about one-sixth of the voters are Hispanic) said last week that he wants to pass an immigration bill this year "if it is at all possible." But then there is the black hole known as the House of Representatives. Simon Rosenberg, the founder of NDN, a center-left Democratic think tank which supports immigration reform, said, "In the Senate, you have knowledge and sophistication on the issue. In the House – which has never gone through a serious debate on immigration – you have more ignorance and fear."
Beyond congressional gamesmanship, there is a larger political question about the nation's mood in the midst of a deep recession. At first glance, this might seem like a moment when it would be easy to arouse economically struggling voters with ominous images of menacing foreigners and threats of open borders, all conveyed by the word "amnesty." But high unemployment in the United States has, in fact, lessened the allure of sneaking across the border or overstaying a tourist visa. In late May, the Border Patrol informed the Senate Judiciary Committee that apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the Mexican border had declined by 27 percent in 2009 to their lowest level since the 1970s. Since enforcement has remained relatively constant, immigration experts believe that this statistic indicates a sharp drop in the number of attempted illegal border crossings.
Another symbol of softening attitudes may be found in – of all things – television ratings. A few years ago, CNN's bumptious Lou Dobbs was riding high as he fed fears that illegal workers were devastating the economy, breeding disease (he actually ballyhooed a bogus leprosy statistic) and claimed that immigration legislation represented a stealth plan to impose a North American super state. But the New York Observer reported this week that Dobbs's ratings were down by 29 percent on CNN and dropping fast on Headline News (HLN). As Felix Gillette wrote in the Observer, referring to the prized 25- to 54-year-old viewing audience, "He finished in fourth place in the demographic at different time slots (7 p.m. and 9 p.m.) on two different networks (CNN and HLN) on the same night!"
Polling data also suggest that hard-line viewpoints on immigration are fading along with the other remnants of the culture wars. A May national poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 63 percent of all voters (including 50 percent of Republicans) support "providing a way for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to gain legal citizenship." A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in April gave voters three choices about what to do with illegal workers in this country: 44 percent opted for allowing them to stay and eventually apply for citizenship; 21 percent chose allowing them to stay as guest workers; and only 30 percent said they should leave the country immediately.
It is, of course, easy to build air castles out of answers to survey questions. And the political puzzle is not what attitudes are when immigration is barely being publicly debated, but whether these sentiments will shift in the midst of a high-decibel congressional drama over amnesty for workers who entered this country illegally or stayed on without a valid visa. For many congressional Democrats who won Republican seats in 2006 and 2008, the political calculation may come down to how much do they fear having a vote for immigration reform be demonized in a 30-second attack ad.
Still, immigration is one of the rare issues on which a centrist viewpoint has emerged that unites all but the send-'em-home right and the heart-on-the-sleeve left. Alan Bersin, an assistant secretary of Homeland Security and Janet Napolitano's special representative for border affairs, summarized this consensus in an interview: "The politics and policy of immigration reform require three things. First, that the economy has the labor it needs. Second, an answer for the 11 million people who are here illegally. And, finally, to assure the American people that – unlike after the 1986 (amnesty) legislation – future flows of workers will be handled through legitimate labor markets." Bersin's last requirement is a reference to securing the borders to avoid attracting a new generation of illegal workers.
Immigration reform before the 2010 elections, though, may prove a bridge too far even for the ambitious Obama administration. White House burnout and congressional exhaustion is a danger at a time when the administration is also trying to grapple with health care, global warming and a "been down so long, it's beginning to look like up to me" economy. Ultimately, the question is – and no one on the sidelines is certain of the answer – how much does Barack Obama care about immigration reform? For without aggressive presidential leadership, the congressional votes are probably not there to reform an immigration system that no one (left, right or center) believes is working.
UPDATE: The White House announced Friday afternoon that the immigration meeting had been postponed yet again. The most likely time for a third try: the week of June 22.