You can’t blame the White House for being surprised and flustered that parts of its draft proposal on immigration reform leaked.
Such flustering vapors arise when you have precious little experience drafting legislation of your own and submitting it for agency review. Other than the Jobs Act, drafted almost entirely as a campaign document, the White House has no experience submitting policy ideas for the gantlet of agency review.
All sorts of things can happen there. Rude questions can be raised, policies can be challenged, or things can be leaked for nefarious reasons. The White House's immigration plan made its way, at least, to the Office of Management and Budget and to Homeland Security. Its scant details on border security suggest, but in no way prove, a motive.
Senior White House officials insist that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been central to the immigration-reform drafting process. Groups pushing for legalization disagree. What is clear is that the White House is noticeably vague about future border-security efforts. It also draws a hard political line — by making no mention of it — against tying legalization efforts to a border-security “trigger.”
That trigger mechanism was crucial to knitting the bipartisan Senate working group together and will be important in keeping that group together. Republicans know that creating a path to legalization, politically, will be impossible without linking it to definable and measurable border-security improvements. They include more Border Patrol agents, fencing, drones, and an integrated visa entry-exit system at airports and seaports. Current law calls for the visa entry-exit system. The working group also requires a legislatively created commission of border-state governors, attorneys general, and community leaders to advise Congress on the progress of border-security efforts.
This isn’t a fail-safe border-security plan, but it is the bare minimum Republicans can accept — and it still may not be enough (we won’t know until lawmakers start voting). But its absence from the White House draft conspicuously informs Republicans that the White House is pushing legalization, and the fight to come will be on many fronts — one of them over the GOP’s ability to push enforcement while embracing but not delaying reform. The White House knows it has the upper hand politically and intends to dare Republicans to slow immigration reform over any issue. Informally, the White House has signaled to the Senate working group that it has until late March to finalize its bill or President Obama will spring his.
As one top administration official told me: “The only thing that prevents the GOP from getting into a much worse hole with Latinos is a bill with a path to citizenship on the president’s desk. Anything else and they have killed immigration reform again. And Obama is by far the most popular player in this game in the Latino community. The last thing Republicans want to do is vote down a bill with the president’s name on it.”
Members of Obama’s inner circle well remember the days when Latino voters sided with his 2008 rival, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. They remember the sense of suspicion and distance that animated their initial relationship with the Latino community, one that slowly shifted during Obama’s hard-fought 2008 victory over Clinton and pro-immigration-reform advocate John McCain of Arizona, the GOP nominee. Obama’s team traveled the road from estrangement to enthusiasm and won’t give ground easily.
But if you think questions of legalization, border security, and fundamental party politics are the biggest obstacles to reform, think again.
The toughest issue may be legal immigration. You know, the issue everyone is for. Who is against legal immigration? Obama is for it. Mitt Romney was for it. Our entire history is suffused with the narrative of dreams that began at the golden door first opened by legal immigration. We all agree, right? Think again.
Legal immigration is much tougher than that. It’s the stunningly underappreciated policy linchpin to reform. Its politics are even more complicated than border security or legalization of undocumented workers. And the White House draft said nothing about it. Nothing. The president’s speech in Nevada on Jan. 29 was similarly vacuous. The White House insists it has a plan, and Obama’s May 10, 2011, speech in El Paso made a glancing reference to helping immigrant entrepreneurs stay and create jobs and a way for seasonal agricultural workers to stay legally in America. That was it.
Legal immigration is far more complex. If Obama and Congress don’t create a workable balance of future legal immigration — in the argot, “future flow” — it might as well give up. Why? Because that’s what Congress did with the 1986 immigration reform act. It legalized 3 million undocumented workers here, didn’t tighten border security, and created a legal immigration system so small (in numbers) and slow (in terms of approval) that illegals flooded across the border for jobs in a variety of industries. That will happen again unless new numbers and rules are applied to all variety of work and immigrant applicants for it.