President Barack Obama will debut his 2012 stump speech on immigration in El Paso, Texas today. I expect he’ll say the usual about how the current system hurts all U.S. workers and threatens national security. He’ll urge Congress to work on a bipartisan manner.
His lackluster message is doomed to fall on deaf ears in Congress. As for voters concerned about immigrant rights, they’re going to pay more attention to his actions. Obama has overseen a record-breaking rise in the number of deportations, and pushed the controversial immigration enforcement program Secure Communities, which is phasing in forced local police participation in a national fingerprinting database.
Facing pressure from state legislatures, constituency groups and Spanish-language media outlets, Obama wants to stay ahead of the debate. He’s making the speech at a key moment when the military operation that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and the release of positive job numbers are bolstering his popularity. Like national security and the economy, immigration is a very complex issue that could affect his re-election chances.
“I strongly believe we have to fix this broken system so it meets the 21st century needs for the American economy and security, he told a group of supporters gathered at the White House’s Cinco de Mayo reception last week. “This is not going to be easy, and it will require bipartisan support.”
Bipartisan cooperation will prove difficult, though. Across the nation, highly partisan state legislation is attacking the Obama administration’s immigration policies from both sides of the political spectrum. Last year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer pointed to federal inaction on immigration enforcement as a pretext for the “Papers Please” SB1070 law. Now, democratic-controlled state legislatures in Illinois and California seek to challenge Obama over the Secure Communities program.
One by one, states are taking sides on immigration. Indiana, Alabama, and Louisiana are moving closer to adopting tough rules that will, in practice, deny undocumented youth access to higher education. On the other hand, Maryland, Oregon, and Connecticut are close to giving undocumented youth access to in-state tuition fees at state colleges and universities.
As state legislatures take immigration policy in their own hands, Congress seems determined to avoid the subject at all costs. Obama will be judged by his actions on immigration policy, not his stump speeches.