05/25/2010 06:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Joe Wilson Redux? Obama Sends Troops to Border to Appease GOP

Looks like President Obama will be giving Senators John McCain (R-AZ), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) most of what they’re asking for: $500 million in new border security funds and 1,200 National Guards deployed to the Southern border. All this, in exchange for… refusing to support comprehensive immigration reform

Say what?

Let’s rewind. Earlier today President Obama spoke with Republican Senators about the need for comprehensive immigration reform.  He went straight into the Lion’s Den and challenged Republicans to work with him on comprehensive immigration reform.  So far, so good, we thought.

But here’s the thing: President Obama left the Lion’s Den having given into the key GOP demand of “border security first” without getting anything in return.  Sound familiar?

President Obama no doubt was eloquent in making his case for comprehensive immigration reform.  He gets it.  He is right when he says the only realistic solution to illegal immigration is a comprehensive overhaul that augments border security measures with a crackdown on illegal hiring and exploitative employers, a requirement that those in the U.S. illegally come forward and meet certain requirements in order to work towards citizenship, and reforms of our legal immigration system going forward. 

Then we learn that he’s asking Congress for half a billion in funding for border security and planning to deploy 1,200 National Guards there as well.  This is similar to what Senators McCain and Kyl have been demanding recently.  McCain and Kyl, both former champions of the kind of comprehensive reform that President Obama advocates, have turned their back on the approach they fought hard for in the past.  They have even embraced Arizona’s new “papers please” law. Approved on a party line vote by the Republican-dominated Arizona legislature, Arizona’s SB 1070 has sparked national boycotts and protests of the state.  They now repeat the vacuous sound-bite of “border security first” and have most of the GOP repeating it ad nauseum.

What’s wrong with “border security first?”  It sounds seductive.  But it’s a trap.  “Border security first” really just means “keep doing more of the same.”  “Border security first” means border security never.  “Border security first” is the de facto strategy employed by Congress and the federal government for the past 17 years. 

How has that strategy worked out so far?  Not so good.  And doing more of the same is a prescription for continued failure.  When it comes to stopping illegal immigration, border enforcement is necessary, but insufficient.  By itself it has not worked, and it will not work. 

Here’s why. It does nothing to stop the jobs magnet that is luring unauthorized immigrants here in the first place. It does nothing to stop unscrupulous employers exploiting cheap labor, undermining the rights of US workers.  It does nothing to deal with the fact of 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.  It does nothing to deal make sure all employers and all workers are paying their full and fair share of taxes.  It does nothing to reform our legal immigration system so that it can respond flexibly to future labor market needs. 

When McCain and Kyl repeat the mantra that nothing can happen until the border is secured, they know they are blocking the only solution that will actually secure the border.  Moreover, they will respond to Obama’s “gesture” by doing the predictable: say it’s not enough and demand ever more.  

It’s never enough.  The goal posts keep getting moved. After all, this way the GOP gets what it wants: a ratcheted-up enforcement-only strategy that is deporting nearly 400,000 people a year. 

Caving in to McCain and Kyl on “border-only” immigration policy sure echoes the Democrats’ cave-in on immigration in the health care exchange following Joe Wilson’s rude outburst. It even echoes the White House eyebrow-raising announcement of support for off-shore drilling.

A better strategy here would be to step up and engage Senators McCain and Kyl in the argument at the heart of this issue.  Comprehensive reform is a solution and border security first is a cop-out.  McCain and Kyl are Arizona’s leaders in Washington, so how come they go around blaming Washington?  They are the ones who have decided to abdicate their responsibility to solve the problem through a broadly popular comprehensive reform plan.

Expect more of the same.  It’s about saving skins, not solving problems.  With McCain locked in a tough and late primary, it’s clear that Senator Kyl is trying to help the former Maverick stave off the challenge from the right.  And it’s now obvious that Senator Graham, reform’s Republican champion in this Congress, wants to spare his friend a vote on comprehensive immigration reform at least until the August primary takes place. 

Meanwhile, Governor Jan Brewer is also being challenged from her right in a primary, which means she signed the Arizona immigration law as an act of political self-preservation, plain and simple.

Maybe Republicans truly believe the American people can’t get enough politics as usual.  Either way, President Obama appears to be playing right into their cynical “border-first” trap instead of leading the nation forward with real, comprehensive solutions. It’s Joe Wilson, all over again.