As a state-level immigration enforcement measure failed in the Florida legislature, the measure’s opponents, from members of the business community to scholars and activists, repeatedly argued that a true fix can only come at the federal level — which is what President Barack Obama called for in a speech made today in El Paso, Texas.
Immigration reform floundered at the federal level during the Bush years. Obama pledged to do something about it during his first year in office, but it didn’t happen. Advocates moved to support more piecemeal efforts, such as the DREAM Act, but that also failed in the Senate amid Republican opposition.
With today’s speech (the full text, as prepared, can be found here), Obama sought to put the onus on Congress. Reform has stalled amid calls to first secure the border, which Obama said his administration is already doing.
Obama said the Border Patrol has more than doubled in size since 2004, to 20,000 agents — a buildup begun under George W. Bush and continued by the current administration. There are also more unmanned drones patrolling border regions. A border “fence is now basically complete.”
His administration is working with Mexico to crack down on crime and smuggling in the border territory, which he said has helped make towns like El Paso among the safest in the nation. They’ve continued cracking down on employers and deporting illegal immigrants, with a focus on criminals, whose removal has increased by 70 percent.
Now, “the most significant step we can take now to secure the borders is to fix the system as a whole.” The question, Obama said, is whether Congress (Republicans in particular) can muster the political will to do so.
Republicans have offered two main lines of response. The first, which Obama tried to preempt with today’s rhetoric, is that stronger enforcement is still needed, as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told the St. Petersburg Times.
“They’ll say we need to triple the border patrol. Or quadruple the border patrol,” Obama said. “They’ll say we need a higher fence to support reform. Maybe they’ll say we need a moat. Or alligators in the moat.
“They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.”
Senate candidate Adam Hasner summed up the second argument against Obama’s proposals on Twitter not long after the speech: “President Obama is more interested in exploiting our broken immigration system for electoral gain than he is in fixing it.”
At The Washington Post, Chris Cillizza writes that Obama’s speech “is rightly understood — and analyzed — as a political document rather than a policy one.” It will help him build a coalition for the 2012 elections, but “will almost certainly land with a dull thud in a Congress wary of taking on an issue so fraught with political pitfalls.”
With the president’s renewed push and the patchwork of attempts to ramp up enforcement at the state level, including the one that recently failed in Florida, what will it take to force Congress to act?