President Obama is reaping a windfall of political capital from the extermination of Osama bin Laden, and he plans to spend a chunk of it on immigration reform. During a Cinco de Mayo celebration with Mexican-Americans at the White House this week, Obama announced he’ll give a major immigration speech during a visit to the border city of El Paso, Texas, next Tuesday, May 10. “I strongly believe that we’ve got to fix [our] broken [immigration] system,” he said, “so that it meets the needs of our 21st-century economy and our security needs.”
But that last part – security – could be the biggest obstacle. Obama acknowledged that unlike last year’s healthcare reform, which passed without Republican votes, the immigration fix is “going to require bipartisan support” after the Democrats lost the House and much of their Senate majority in last November’s midterm elections. He shouldn’t count on too much cooperation across the aisle, however. Leading Republican lawmakers strongly object to the President’s proposal to put people who are in the U.S. illegally on a citizenship track. Conservatives decry that as rewarding lawbreakers – and since the raid on Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound this week has given Obama new warrior clout, the GOP may well decide immigration is a useful issue for chopping his security cachet down again before the 2012 election.
You could hear that impulse this week here in Florida, when Republican legislators stumped for a strict new immigration bill, one of many around the country that imitate the draconian new Arizona law requiring state police to check people’s immigration status. Some, like GOP state Senator John Thrasher, tied illegal immigration to terrorism: If a database for checking a prospective employee’s status had been in place in 2001, Thrasher argued, “we might have saved the lives of 3,000 Americans” on 9/11.
That’s a bold statement – and unfortunately it’s not true. Florida conservatives, including Tea Party-backed Governor Rick Scott, want to compel all employers in the state to consult the federal government’s voluntary E-Verify database, set up in 2007,when hiring. But even if the E-Verify system had been in place a decade ago, it wouldn’t have prevented 9/11. Most if not all the 9/11 hijackers were in this country legally, as has almost always been the case with terrorists collared on U.S. soil. Regardless of whether or not you agree with giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, the fact is that while those who are here illegally are technically lawbreakers, the vast majority are hardly a security or criminal threat.
And that fact may offer Obama a tack to take in the upcoming immigration reform debate. Part of his reason for visiting El Paso – which is just across the Rio Grande from Juárez, Mexico, a place so ravaged by drug violence that it’s become the western hemisphere’s deadliest city – is to showcase his border security improvements and defang some of the GOP criticism. But he might also ask, If illegal immigration is such a criminal and terrorist threat to the U.S., then why do the four states that border Mexico, where so many of those migrants cross or end up living and working, make up one of the safest corridors in the country? Why, according to the FBI, were the four large U.S. cities with the lowest 2009 crime rates located in those border states? (Juárez had almost 3,000 murders last year; El Paso saw fewer than 10.)
The bottom line is that conservatives will have a hard time linking illegal immigration to security – or to a claim that Obama is soft on that issue because of his immigration reform proposal. They can of course connect it to other things, like the financial burden that illegal, and so often uninsured, immigrants can lay on U.S. hospitals and emergency rooms. But Obama can retort that getting those undocumented residents citizenship will bring them out of the shadows and into the world of the legally employed and, one hopes, health-insured.
Either way, moderate Republicans in the Florida Senate, recognizing that their state and its voters are much more immigrant-oriented than Arizona, watered down the immigration bill this past week to the point that the more conservative Florida House decided not even to take it up. As he heads to the border next week, that Sunshine State defeat for the immigration hardliners might be an encouraging sign for the President, who needs immigration reform to shore up his Hispanic base in 2012. But creating a sane immigration system is still one of this country’s most intractable problems – thanks to both liberal let-everybody-in and conservative keep-everybody-out dogma – and its prospects don’t look that bright when forging bipartisan support for anything in this country today looks just as difficult.