Save for a miracle, President Obama's nationally televised speech on immigration, broadcast Tuesday, won't lead to comprehensive reform anytime soon. It will, however, advance the conversation on one of the most explosive issues facing the United States today, which the vast majority of Americans believe needs serious fixing.
"There has been fear and resentment directed towards newcomers, especially in hard economic times," Obama said, characterizing the problem. "So we've seen a lot of blame and a lot of politics and a lot of ugly rhetoric around immigration."
The president made a moral and economic case for offering a path to citizenship (that includes punishments) for America's roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants. It's "not just the right thing to do," he said. "It's smart for our economy." He also proposed easing up the process for skilled workers to immigrate, because "we don't want the next Intel or the next Google to be created in China or India." The blueprint he unveiled was broadly similar to President Bush's plan that was defeated in 2007.
Obama's speech was in no small part about doing damage control with Hispanics, a crucial Democratic-leaning voting bloc that feels betrayed by Obama's broken promise to push for immigration reform during his first year in office. He blamed Republicans -- not unfairly -- for declining to consider any broad overhaul of the system.
The speech, made in southern Texas near the US-Mexico border, allowed Obama to point out that he's gone "above and beyond" Republican demands to beef up enforcement. Indeed, this president's first two years in office saw declining illegal immigration as well as diminished border violence and crime. He has ramped up border security and deported record numbers of people.
"All the stuff they asked for, we've done," Obama said, suspecting that Republicans will "move the goal posts on us one more time" rather than finally address the remaining pillars of reform. As it turns out, that's what they did.
"The American people simply aren't buying any claims that the border is secure from crime and violence, and they shouldn't," a spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner told me after the speech, noting that "murderous criminal gangs" continue to smuggle illegal drugs across the border.
Boehner isn't wrong, but he's obfuscating the fact that the border situation has been improving. His response is Republicanese for, "the tea party movement won't tolerate us giving an inch on amnesty for illegal immigrants, so we're not going to." Indeed, any Republican who supports the idea will get savaged in their next primary, so the GOP will use its clout to block it in Congress. But omitting this provision would be politically suicidal for Obama, alienating voters who may be vital to his reelection.
That's the stalemate in a nutshell, and it won't be resolved until one side gives in. There are other thorny problems, but they aren't dealbreakers -- including the splits between labor and the Chamber of Commerce on temporary work visa programs, and the complexities of addressing a family reunification process marred by country quotas for green cards.
Conservatives, for their part, are simply concerned about enforcement. They remain enthusiastic about the controversial Arizona law, and the state's Republican governor is pushing the Supreme Court to lift the injunction on allowing officers to check legal status on demand. Across the Great Plains, Illinois tea partiers are furious about the DREAM Act, a proposal that offers legal status to undocumented children raised in the U.S. if they attend college or join the military.
Progressives denounce as immoral the prospect of keeping millions of people confined to the shadows. Four in five Americans want to convert them to legal taxpayers. Meanwhile, families are torn apart. Labor unions fret that a large underclass of exploitable workers is hurting blue-collar Americans. Business leaders worry that the roadblocks in the system encourage even the most talented international students to take their college diplomas and go home.
Piecemeal measures might still be in the cards, but addressing all these issues will require a dramatic shift in the political landscape, one where anti-immigrant sentiments ease up -- which may happen as the economy improves. Apart from that, it'll need a masterstroke from Democrats -- a miraculous deal in which they somehow convince enough Republicans to take the political gamble of a lifetime.
"All of us deserve our freedoms and our pursuit of happiness," Obama argued Tuesday. "In embracing America, you can become American. That is what makes this country great. That enriches all of us."
Whatever happens in the near term, the status quo is unsustainable in the long run and bad for almost everybody. Washington will eventually have to address those in the country illegally as well as make hard choices about who can immigrate and who cannot. Long gone are the days of open borders. And far be it from a great nation built by immigrants to turn away the world's best and brightest and lose the future.
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