On the thorniest of political issues, President Obama has embraced the enforcement-first position on immigration that he criticized during last year’s presidential campaign, and he now says he can’t move forward with the type of comprehensive bill he wants until voters are convinced that the borders can be enforced.
Having already backed off his pledge to have an immigration bill this year, Mr. Obama boosted his commitment to enforcement in the budget released Thursday. The spending blueprint calls for extra money to build an employee-verification system and to pay for more personnel and equipment to patrol the border.
This security-first stance is not unlike that of President George W. Bush, Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who said their immigration bill failed in 2007 because voters didn’t trust the government to be serious about enforcement.
“If the American people don’t feel like you can secure the borders,” Mr. Obama said at his press conference last week, “then it’s hard to strike a deal that would get people out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship who are already here, because the attitude of the average American is going to be, ‘Well, you’re just going to have hundreds of thousands of more coming in each year.’ ”
Republicans say the shift is a sign that Mr. Obama, who during the campaign repeatedly called the issue a priority, is uncertain how to move forward.
“I don’t think Barack Obama understands the immigration issue. I don’t know that he has spoken about it in any depth during his entire political career,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the top Republican on the House Judiciary subcommittee that handles immigration. “I think he’s finding his position, and I think that’s why we’re getting these moving positions.”
Immigration questions dog Mr. Obama. He was asked about the issue at a town hall in California and has been prodded by Spanish-language reporters, to whom he has given plenty of access.
But so far, even as he puts off a target date for signing a comprehensive bill, he has kept the support of immigrant rights groups, who applaud his changes at the Department of Homeland Security and say he’s still committed to their top priority - a bill that would legalize most illegal immigrants.
“Given all the givens - you can’t look at any one priority in isolation - he’s made a decent start,” said Angela M. Kelley, who used to be director of the Immigration Policy Center and is now vice president for immigration issues at the Center for American Progress. But, she said, he will need to show some progress before the year is out.
“The president needs to help Congress steer this issue, so there has be a pretty clear road map that he’s stating publicly about how he wants us to proceed, and then have the internal workings of the White House support what he says publicly,” she said.
The 2007 bill was blocked in the Senate by a bipartisan filibuster, but Republicans provided most of the “no” votes and took most of the blame. Even with expanded Democratic majorities and a sense among immigrant-rights groups that voters’ attitudes on the issue have shifted in their favor, Mr. Obama still will have to win Republican votes.
Mr. King said that math may be part of the reason why the president is now talking about enforcement.
“It looks to me that Obama has a clear instinct to lurch as hard to the left as possible, but I think he also recognizes now there are some real limitations to what you can do because you’ve still got to get 60 votes in the Senate,” Mr. King said.
Last summer, as a candidate, Mr. Obama said stepped-up enforcement had to be coupled with rewriting immigration rules and giving both instant legal status and an eventual path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants who are willing to pay a fine and learn English.
He also told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that comprehensive immigration - the term backers use for a bill that includes legalizing illegal immigrants - would be “a priority I will pursue from my very first day.”
But last month, on Univision’s “Al Punto” Sunday political talk show, host Jorge Ramos tried to pin down Mr. Obama on his campaign “guarantee” that “we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support.”
“You are absolutely right, the economic crisis has meant that I have been putting a lot on Congress’ plate,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Ramos, according to Univision’s transcript. “So what that’s meant is that just in terms of the calendar, I can’t guarantee that I will have a bill on my desk before the end of the year.”
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was asked whether Americans have enough confidence in border security.
“It depends on who you ask and when,” she said.
Those who want to see stricter limits on immigration say they have been amazed at how much leeway Mr. Obama is being given by immigrant rights groups who have been harshly critical of calls for enforcement first.
“I’m just surprised at how muted the reaction has been to Obama’s complete lack of action on immigration,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who said immigrant rights groups are giving Mr. Obama “a lot more slack than they would have given a President McCain.”
Earlier this year Mr. McCain told The Washington Times that immigrant rights supporters were mistaken if they thought Mr. Obama’s promise to conduct meetings meant they will see a bill.
“I was fascinated the Hispanic Caucus came out all excited - ‘Hey, he said we’re going to have forums and meetings and conferences on it’ - is there somebody that doesn’t understand the issue of immigration? So if the president wants to lead and make a proposal on comprehensive immigration reform with the principle of securing our borders first, then I’m ready to join in. But the president has to lead,” Mr. McCain said.