President Obama renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform in a major address at the U.S.-Mexico border on Tuesday and attempted to restart the debate on an issue he spoke passionately about as a candidate but has made little headway on during his presidency.
In a speech in El Paso, Texas, Obama argued that his administration has made significant progress on border security over the last two years, answering GOP opponents' objections to tackling reform legislatively.
The Obama administration has doubled the number of agents patrolling the border and has deported nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants last year—facts that the president said underscore that the conditions are right for a serious debate on overhauling the nation’s immigration policy, administration officials said. The president also said that current immigration laws are keeping innovative thinkers and skilled workers from contributing to the U.S. economy.
But even in making his case to reopen the debate on immigration reform, Obama noted that it would be difficult to get comprehensive immigration reform through a divided Congress.
"We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement," Obama said. "All the stuff they asked for, we've done. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I suspect there will be those who will try to move the goal posts one more time."
In his address, Obama offered broad outlines of what he thought comprehensive reform should look like. He suggested that the U.S. government has to fulfill its responsibility of securing the nation's borders. Businesses that exploit undocumented workers should be dealt with severely. Illegal workers currently in the country would have to pay fines, taxes, learn English and go to the back of line of those trying to immigrate legally. And the law needs to be reshaped so that it's easier for foreigners who come to the U.S. for school to stay and work once they earn their degrees.
To be sure, passing any legislation with a divided Congress faces long odds. But by simply putting the issue on the front burner, the president’s effort could help energize a constituency that will be key to his reelection efforts.
“There’s a political consequence and what he says will go a long way in promoting enthusiasm among Hispanic voters,” Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told National Journal.
As a candidate, Obama spoke passionately about immigration reform, intoning a moral imperative to bring an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States “out of the shadows.”
Addressing the issue now could have a direct impact on the president’s survival at the polls in 2012. Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, but he has been hammered by CHC members for giving immigration reform short shrift after promising on the campaign trail that he would make passing it a central part of his agenda during the first year of his presidency. CHC members have also criticized the administration for setting a new record in 2010 with 392,000 deportations.
Obama did back the Dream Act, legislation that would offer young illegal immigrants a path to legal residency by going to college or serving the U.S. military, but an attempt to pass the legislation was blocked in Senate during the lame-duck session.
Last week, members of the CHC pressed Obama to use administrative powers to prevent deportation of illegal immigrants that would have been protected under the Dream Act, but Obama seemed hesitant to act unilaterally and told lawmakers that immigration needed to be fixed through legislation.
"I know some here wish that I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself," Obama said on Tuesday. "But that’s not how a democracy works."
Hispanic groups are reminding the president that they played a large part in helping him win in 2008, and could make the difference in many battleground states in his reelection effort.
Obama won in 2008 despite capturing just 43 percent of the white vote. With the economy foundering, he could find it difficult to maintain even that modest level of support in 2012. But thanks to minority population growth in key states he won in 2008—including Florida, Nevada, and Virginia—he could still pull out victory with an even smaller segment of white voters, according to a National Journal analysis.
More than any group, Hispanics are driving the country’s minority growth. One in six Americans is Hispanic, or about 50.5 million in total, according to the 2010 census. That’s up from one in eight, or 35.3 million, in 2000.
In his speech, Obama reframed immigration reform as an economic and law-and-order issue. Administration officials said that the White House would also draw members of the faith-based community and business leaders into the conversation, an effort that they hope could help draw Republicans into the discussion. The White House is in the process of arranging 30 community conversations to raise the issue’s profile.
"When an issue is this complex and raises such strong feelings, it’s easier for politicians to defer the problem until after the next election. And there’s always a next election," Obama said. "So we’ve seen a lot of blame and politics and ugly rhetoric. We’ve seen good faith efforts – from leaders of both parties – fall prey to the usual Washington games. And all the while, we’ve seen the mounting consequences of decades of inaction."