Do you know that great film where the guy finds himself repeating the same day over and over again? It came to mind yesterday, when President Obama trekked to Texas to talk up immigration reform.
This event was classic Groundhog Day. Obama’s aides said it was time to “create a pathway” for reform, even though the president wasn’t proposing an actual bill. That sure sounded familiar. One year ago, Senate Democrats offered “a conceptual proposal” for reform, without proposing an actual bill.Yesterday, the president rightly complained that there has been “a lot of blame and a lot of politics and a lot of ugly rhetoric around immigration.” One year ago, he complained that immigration “generates a lot of emotions, and the politics are difficult.”In other words, it was politically impossible to enact comprehensive immigration reform in 2010 (a path to citizenship for illegals, coupled with tough border security measures) – and it’s politically impossible to do it now.And since Obama won’t be able to sign anything into law, all he can do is talk about it. As he said one year ago, “I’ve been unwavering in saying what we need to do.” As he said yesterday, “I’m going to do my part to lead a constructive and civil debate on these issues.”In the absence of any policy breakthrough, he’ll just work on the politics. Latino voters are crucial to his ’12 re-election prospects – particularly in swing states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, and Virginia – and in essence he wants to be able to tell them, “Look, folks, I’ve tried repeatedly to deliver immigration reform, but if we don’t get it, don’t blame me. Blame the Republicans for blocking it.”The Republican right indeed deserves much of the blame. George W. Bush, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham were vocal immigration reform advocates as recently as 2006 – Obama acknowledged this yesterday when he said that “we’ve seen good faith efforts from leaders of both parties” – but they were thwarted by conservative lawmakers and the angry white party base. President Bush gave up the fight, and McCain caved so badly that he morphed into a “complete the dang fence” right-winger. Senate Republicans have been saying No ever since; last year, they even nixed a modest plan that would have helped foreign college students gain legal status and remain in America. (As Obama lamented yesterday, “Instead of training entrepreneurs to stay here, we train them to create jobs for our competition.”)Republicans have long contended that path-to-citizenship reform should stay off the table at least until the borders were more secure. But even though Obama has sharply ramped up border enforcement and forced a record number of deportations (400,000 in each of the last two years) – to the point of angering many of his Latino supporters – Republicans, predictably, still refuse to budge.As Obama remarked yesterday, “There are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time. You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied.”True that. But it’s also true that immigration reform remains a tough sell to independent swing voters – and Obama in 2012 will need them as well. He tried to reach them yesterday by framing this issue in bread-and-butter terms – “one way to strengthen the middle class is to reform our immigration system, so that there is no longer a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor while depressing wages for everybody else” – but the fact is, the issue doesn’t resonate much beyond the Latino and liberal Democratic base…which is also why some centrist Democratic lawmakers have been resistant.According to a USA Today-Gallup poll conducted in January, 55 percent of Americans oppose passage of “a bill to give some illegal immigrants living in the U.S. a path to legal status.” And it’s widely viewed as a low priority issue anyway. In mid-April, when the CBS/New York Times pollsters quizzed people on their most pressing concerns, 39 percent said “economy/jobs,” 15 percent said “budget deficit,” six percent said “health care,” five percent said “fuel costs”…and immigration reform didn’t even make the list. And when a recent Bloomberg poll specifically listed immigration reform as a priority option, only three percent of Americans chose it.Hence, Obama’s delicate dance. He won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, and he’ll need a similar or greater percentage next year; accordingly, he wants credit for talking about reforms that he won’t be able to pass. Meanwhile, he’s telling the independent swing voters, who are indifferent about immigration reform, that his own interest is really driven by his desire to boost the economy. (He insisted yesterday, “Immigration reform is an economic imperative.”)So even as he assails the Republicans for playing politics with the issue, he has no choice but to play as well. In the absence of action, he’s stuck with rhetoric. Ideally, it would be nice if we didn’t have to wake up year after year to the same immigration story, if somehow (as in Groundhog Day) we could ultimately achieve a dramatic breakthrough, but, alas, life is often far more intractable than art.