It’s a measure of the minimal importance that President Obama assigns to enforcing the country’s immigration laws that he waited until this week to deliver his first speech on immigration. When he did, the president merely confirmed what is already common knowledge: the system is broken and there is nothing that his administration will do to fix it.
In equal parts high-minded and disingenuous, the speech at American University was typical of the president’s oratory. Setting himself above the political fray, Obama condemned “special interests” and partisan gridlock for holding immigration reform hostage. But he failed to note that Democrats currently rule both houses of Congress, and that the entire immigration reform effort, with its implicit amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants residing in this country, is itself a sop to a large special interest: the growing population of Hispanics that Democrats hope to turn into loyal voters. It was no coincidence that just prior to his speech Obama met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Typical, too, was the president’s reliance on straw men to stifle debate – in this instance, the prospect of mass deportations of illegal immigrants. This in fact is a policy that no serious immigration restrictionists advocate, and its invocation is a convenient way to foreclose serious discussion about enforcement policies that really could reduce the burden of illegal immigration. Similarly, there was the president’s now-routine posturing as a lone pragmatist seeking common-sense solutions. But that Solomonic stance is gravely undermined by the fact that this White House, like its predecessors, has opposed the pragmatic measures – especially credible enforcement and robust border security – that could provide a measure of relief from the problems of mass illegal immigration.
If the president’s speech recycled the more tired tropes of the immigration debate, the real news was that there was no news in the speech. For all the feigned urgency of his remarks, there was no evidence that the president was actually proposing to do anything to deal with the immigration issue. He outlined no specific policies, nor did he propose any specific piece of legislation.
Why then raise the issue at all? Election-year politics would seem to be the chief explanation. The speech seemed intended as a boost to troubled Democratic incumbents, particularly embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Facing a tough rival in Tea Party-backed Republican candidate Sharron Angle, Reid has been actively courting his state’s Hispanics, who comprise 15 percent of the Nevada electorate. By floating the prospect of immigration reform and eventual amnesty, Reid hopes to rally support even in the absence of an actual bill. If that stratagem fails, it won’t be for lack of backing from the White House. No sooner did Obama deliver his speech than he invited Reid for a private and symbolic meeting.
Electioneering aside, it’s clear that the White House does not actually intend to do anything on the immigration front, least of all to put in place the kind of border enforcement that President Obama claims to support. A fair reading of the administration’s true feelings on that issue can be gleaned by its hostile and openly adversarial response to Arizona’s recently enacted law to combat illegal immigration. SB 1070 deputizes Arizona state police to check immigration status of anyone stopped during the commission of a crime or infraction if they are suspected to be in the country illegally. As such, it attempts to do what the federal government is supposed to do but is not: enforce the country’s immigration laws. Yet the Obama administration has gone to war against SB 1070, with the Justice Department now preparing a lawsuit to block the law from going into effect. Laying the groundwork for that suit this week, President Obama condemned the Arizona law as “ill conceived” and “divisive.” That means that the only thing that the White House has done about illegal immigration is to challenge a state that has made a modest attempt to come to grips with the problem.
The administration’s misplaced priorities in this regard are unlikely to change. If the 2011 budget recently unveiled by the Department of Homeland Security is any guide, border enforcement will not be a goal for the administration in the coming year. Some of the largest decreases in funding will affect items like border security fencing and infrastructure. There are, to be sure, cosmetic gestures, such as the 1,200 National Guard troops that Obama ordered to the Southwest border in late May. But their impact on illegal immigration is likely to be negligible. Not only does the 1,200 deployment fall far short of the 6,000 National Guard troops that were stationed on the border under the Bush administration, but the guardsmen have no enforcement capabilities. Among other handicaps, they do not have the authority to arrest illegals crossing the border.
While the president has at least reintroduced the subject of immigration to the national debate, those seeking evidence of a White House focus on reducing illegal immigration would have been disappointed by the president’s speech. They would not have been the only ones. A Wall Street Journal report on the speech noted that Obama “wasn’t interrupted for applause a single time.” Perhaps that’s because the president’s remarks, long on slogans and short on solutions, offered so little to cheer about.