Obama Passes the Buck on Immigration, Then Lectures Everybody

Remember Mr. President, you're supposed to be the change.

By Daisy Hernandez Jul 01, 2010

As expected, Obama called today for a renewed push on immigration reform that everyone, including key leaders in his own party, has already said won’t happen this year. But in a midterm election year, it sure was a great opportunity to remind voters, Latino or otherwise, that Republicans are being unreasonable—yet again. Citing failures to pass immigration reform in the past, Obama noted that it can’t be done this time without Republican votes.

But Obama left out one thing from his speech: himself.

"He failed to recognize that he himself is in a unique position to roll back a lot of the policies that create a human rights crisis and that create divisiveness," said Sarahi Uribe an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, adding, "It seemed like he was passing the buck on something he could immediately resolve."

Those federal policies includes ones granting local cops the right to execute immigration law—policies that led to Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law SB 1070.

Throughout the half-hour speech, Obama took a posture similar to that of the last days of the health care reform fight: a man who wants to fix a problem but, sigh, he has to deal with a table of Republicans who don’t want to play nice. It didn’t stop with Republicans this time though. Taking the tone and poise of the stern, but loving father figure, Pres. Obama also chastised everyone else as well.

To the immigration advocates who want to stop the deportations: "I recognize the sense of compassion that drives this argument, but I believe such an indiscriminate approach would be both unwise and unfair. It would suggest to those thinking about coming here illegally that there will be no repercussions for such a decision."

To the anti-immigrants who want to deport even more people: "Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover, it would tear at the very fabric of this nation."

To the undocumented: "They should be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English."

It was the typical Obama speech where the president insists that he’s the most reasonable guy in the room and that most Americans are just as reasonable as him. He insisted that most Americans are as skeptical about a "blanket amnesty" as they are about deporting 11 million people. So he’s going for the middle path: amnesty with fines and more enforcement on the border. On the latter point, he noted that his administration has "more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than at any time in our history."

Where he boasted of enforcement in one part of the speech, in another he noted that there is a moral imperative to fix the immigration system. And while he spent the first part of the speech praising the hard work of immigrants, he spent the second half describing immigrants as people who have broken the law. It came across as a desperate move to appeal to every listener in the room.

Obama didn’t give a timeframe for moving on the reform, most likely because he know he can’t deliver it. Instead, as the AP reported earlier this week, when Obama met with leaders from labor and religious groups on Monday, he talked about moving smaller pieces of legislation including the DREAM Act that would enable undocumented kids to go to college and some way to legalize farmworkers. He mentioned both options in his speech today.

While Obama noted that the Arizona law puts undue burden on local cops, he didn’t touch on the ways in which immigrants suffer from an immigration system that increasingly works hand in hand with the criminal justice system. He was mum on two recent Supreme Court decisions, one of which requires defense lawyers to advise their undocumented clients of the immigration consequences if they plead guilty to a crime.

On a positive note, Obama used the word "illegal" only twice to refer to people (though he hammered home the "here illegally" frame). He said "undocumented" four times, suggesting that maybe the president is taking Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s lead on words that humanize people. Or perhaps that the speech was meant to please everybody–and likely no one.

Several senior Democratic sources told CNN that there’s some teeny bit of hope for moving on immigration during the lame-duck session of Congress after the election, but that next year is really the earliest and most realistic time frame. But even that, one source told CNN, may be "happy talk."

Photo: Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski