Barack Obama's immigration speech in El Paso May 10 was an exercise in electioneering and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy because while Obama complained about "politicians" blocking comprehensive immigration bills, he was one of them himself.
In 2007, when such a bill was backed by a lame duck Republican president and had bipartisan backing from Senate heavyweights Edward Kennedy and Jon Kyl, Sen. Obama voted for union-backed amendments that Kennedy and Kyl opposed as bill-killers.
In 2009 and 2010, President Obama acquiesced in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to pass cap-and-trade and bypass immigration and in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision not to bring an immigration bill to the floor.
Both times the votes were probably there to pass a bill. Obama did not lift a finger to help.
But that did not stop the president who is constantly calling for civility to heap scorn on those who seek stronger enforcement. "They'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll need a moat," he said to laughter from the largely Latino audience. "Maybe they'll want alligators in the moat. They'll never be satisfied."
Was that on the teleprompter, or was it ad-libbed? In either case, Obama was showing his contempt for those who bitterly cling to the idea that the law should be enforced.
That's no way to assemble the bipartisan coalition necessary to pass an immigration bill.
It's obvious that nothing like the legalization (opponents say "amnesty") provisions considered in 2007 can pass in this Congress. They can never pass the Republican House, where Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith is a longstanding opponent and Speaker John Boehner will not schedule a bill not approved in committee.
Nor will this Congress pass the most attractive proposal Obama mentioned, the Dream Act, providing a path to legalization for those brought in illegally as children who enroll in college or serve in the military. That failed last December in a more Democratic Senate and won't pass now.
Some new approach is needed, and Obama did little to point the way. One idea, advanced by a bipartisan Brookings Institution panel, is a bill that would strengthen enforcement and would shift the U.S. away from low-skill and toward high-skill immigration.
Canada and Australia have done this to their great benefit. And with a sluggish economy it makes little sense, as current law does, to give preference to low-skill siblings of minimum wage workers rather than to engineering and science Ph.D.s. We need more job creators, not more job seekers.
The problem here is that the lobbying forces backing comprehensive legislation don't favor such an approach. Latino groups and lobbies representing employers of low-skill workers are interested in legalizing the low-skill Latinos who make up the majority of the 11 million illegal immigrants.
High-tech firms seek more H-1B visas for high-skill graduates, but these tie immigrants to particular employers. They don't have an interest in provisions allowing these people to work for anyone they don't like or to start their own businesses, as they can in Canada and Australia.
In the absence of significant lobbying support, the only way to provide support for Brookings-style legislation is a bold presidential initiative advertising it as a clean break from past proposals.
Obama didn't come close to doing that in El Paso. He included a few words about letting in more high-skill folks, but didn't suggest any reduction in low-skill immigration.
And he said only a few words about workplace enforcement on which his administration has developed a valuable new tool.
That's a refinement of the E-Verify electronic system now available in which employers can verify the Social Security numbers of new employees.
The Department of Homeland Security has been ironing out glitches in E-Verify and, as former National Security Agency general counsel Stewart Baker reports, DHS now allows job-seekers in some states to use E-Verify before applying for a job not only to check their status but also to protect against identity theft.
The administration has been attacking state laws requiring employers to use E-Verify. If Obama were serious about enforcement, he would be calling for mandatory E-Verify. That would be a more effective tool against illegal immigration than even the strongest border enforcement.
But as Obama's record makes clear, he's not really interested in passing a law. He knows his support has been slipping among Latino voters, and he wants to goose it back up. El Paso was all about election 2012, not serious immigration reform.
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