What the President Left Out of His Immigration Reform Speech

He made the economic argument, and rightly called Republicans out. But he mentioned neither the power he's abdicating nor the racial anxieties that define the fight.

By Rinku Sen May 11, 2011

The big question about whether President Obama’s speech on immigration is more politics than policy won’t actually be answered for several months. Clearly, he has decided to put immigration policy on the agenda, having done something on the issue nearly every day of the past week, including meeting with Hollywood Latinos and touring the border in Texas. He used the phrase "illegal immigrant" only once in a long line of references to "undocumented" people. He put comprehensive immigration reform back on the table, and advocated for the DREAM Act. He clearly wants credit for trying, which will give him cover during the election if the outcomes in Congress are minimal–a very likely scenario indeed.

Obama’s support of the DREAM Act does constitute a change in his approach, but not one that goes far enough. When comprehensive reform failed to gain traction during his first year in office, Obama first resisted moving on the DREAM Act or other incremental policy changes, telling advocates that he wanted to move everything together so that Congress didn’t pick up a few piecemeal items and neglect the larger question of a broad legalization. But as Republican support for a comprehensive bill has disappeared, the incremental approach has become the only way to go.

Obama could take full advantage of the moment by making a range of decisions that don’t require congressional action. As Julianne Hing pointed out earlier this week, the president has a broad range of administrative powers. If he acknowledged that the bipartisan moment on this issue has largely passed us by, he might use his executive power to make regulatory and administrative changes that could, for example, ease family unification, or stop the deportations of DREAM Act eligible students, or prevent the deportations of parents of U.S. citizens. Similar regulatory changes took place in past administrations when immigration policy caused too much harm, as in the late 1920s and ’30s.

The president could also direct Janet Napolitano to let cities and states opt out of Secure Communities, the program that enables local police to enforce immigration law. (The state of Illinois has demanded the freedom to opt out, but has been caught in a bait and switch by Homeland Security, which has suddenly declared the voluntary program to be mandatory.) Obama’s failure to use his executive power has resulted in record numbers of deportations, including, contrary to his own claims, hundreds of thousands of people deported through Secure Communities with no criminal history whatsoever. A new report released last week by the Southwest Institute for Research on Women and the Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program documents dozens of stories of parents disappearing into immigrant detention, while their kids move into the child welfare system.

In his El Paso speech, Obama made an economic argument mostly, rather than a moral or a cultural one. He emphasized the "best and the brightest" and showed a preference for skilled workers. He didn’t take the economic argument far enough really–didn’t talk about how much immigrants, including those without papers, pay in taxes for benefits they’ll never see, nor about how even unskilled immigrants are critical to our economy. Even low-wage immigrant workers generate more jobs by their productive presence than not, so the they took our jobs trope is hardly as simple as restrictionists have made it seem.

The economic argument Obama advanced neatly marries the image of an immigrant with that of a worker. Work certainly is a big part of what immigrants come to the U.S. to do, but it doesn’t deal with the fact that a good chunk of the country is not only concerned about immigrants and the economy, but also about immigrants changing the culture and politics of the country. Obama’s general reluctance to speak to racial anxiety and conflict spills over across the Democratic Party and gives immigration conservatives a huge amount of space to evoke invasion images. Obama criticized Republicans for "moving the goal" each time they insist that the border has to be totally secure before any other discussion of immigration policy can take place. But he didn’t challenge (untrue) stereotyping of immigrants as over-users of welfare and as gang members. As advocate Frank Sharry pointed out in a New York Times report on the relationship of anti-immigrant organizations to the eugenicist John Tanton, the movement failed for a long time to address the racial fears behind restricting immigration, to the detriment of the comprehensive immigration reform agenda.

I’d like to be optimistic about Obama’s strategy for moving immigration reform, and I know that conservatives in both parties need to be brought along. To really do that, though, I don’t think an economic argument will be enough. The racial fears of Americans have to be addressed to rebuild support for forward-looking immigration policy. Latinos can’t apply ample pressure or provide ample reassurance that they really are Americans by themselves; we all need to get involved. This fight is going to go on long after 2012, and in places far beyond the border or the halls of Congress.