Obama's Immigration Reform Vision: Clouded by Cynicism

Obama's Immigration Reform Vision: Clouded by Cynicism

By Mark Salter - May 12, 2011

President Obama made a campaign stop in El Paso, Texas, this past Monday to shore up his support from Hispanic voters, who are disappointed by his failure to achieve comprehensive reform of our immigration laws.

To be clear, he did not go to El Paso to encourage Congress to pass reform legislation, the purpose he claimed in his remarks. On the contrary, his very partisan speech castigating Republicans for their continued insistence on improved border security in advance of other reforms almost certainly made that task harder, not easier, to achieve, as he surely knew it would.

Obama did not use the speech to announce he would institute some reforms by executive order rather than legislation, as reform supporters hoped he would. He did not announce that the White House would send Congress draft legislation he would like passed. In an interview with reporters, a White House aide explained, "Often when the White House just puts something on the table, it can become a point of conflict and not an inflection point to move forward."

The president would have us believe that cynically mocking Republicans for their supposed cynicism -- "Maybe Republicans will say we need a moat," he joked, "or alligators in the moat; they'll never be satisfied" -- wasn't offered as a point of conflict but to move forward the bipartisan cooperation necessary to pass a bill.

None of this comes as much of a surprise. Obama has never been serious about passing immigration reform. But he has been very adroit at using the unresolved issue to advance his own political interests.

In 2005, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John McCain sponsored comprehensive legislation that would have made substantial improvements to border security, establish a guest-worker program, and give the 12 to 20 million immigrants now living here illegally a path to citizenship. It certainly had its critics, mostly on the right but many on the left as well. Much of organized labor took exception to the guest-worker provisions.

A bipartisan group of senators supporting the bill formed an informal caucus to help guide it successfully through Senate debate. They met every morning in a room just off the Senate chamber to discuss plans for defending the bill from amendments that would reduce its chances of passage. Then-Sen. Barack Obama asked to join in those discussions.

As an aide to McCain, I was in the room for every one of those meetings. It was my first opportunity to observe Obama closely. During those meetings, I never saw him engage in any discussion concerned with building a majority vote in favor of the legislation. In the meetings he attended, he would draw from his shirt pocket a 3x5 index card, on which he had written changes he insisted be made to the bill before he would support it. They were invariably the same demands made by the AFL-CIO, which was intent on watering down or killing the guest-worker provisions. Republicans and Democrats alike were irritated by his transparently self-interested behavior, but tried to negotiate with him. He remained adamant in his positions and unwilling to compromise.

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Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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