On immigration, President Obama needs to step up and lead

How do we get beyond the inflammatory and self-defeating polemics of our current immigration debate?  Sadly, the new Congress is shaping up to be just as divisive and deadlocked as the last one.

The new Republican majority in the House, already drunk with power, plans to introduce legislation to repeal “birthright” citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.  It’s hard to imagine a more deliberate and ugly provocation.  Even if a toned-down version of the bill ends up passing the Senate, which is unlikely, Obama’s certain to veto it.  And there will be lawsuits galore.

For many Latinos, the repeal push will only confirm their worst fears: the GOP doesn’t really care about illegal immigration — it’s simply out to get them.  What a stupid signal to send after making such impressive inroads with Latino voters in November.  Even long-time immigration critics like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies oppose the new legislation.  They say it’s a distraction — and won’t actually reduce illegal immigration by that much.

Not that the immigration lobby is helping matters much.  With the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), it’s pushing for passage of the so-called Dream Act during the upcoming “lame-duck” session of Congress.  Lame-duck sessions are sometimes needed to address a nation’s unfinished business — no question.  But they’re not intended to allow outgoing members of Congress one last chance to pass unpopular pieces of legislation before the incoming Congress is seated.  It’s an affront to the voters, and to basic democratic principles.

In fact, prior to the midterms, the Democrats tried to pass the Dream Act as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, but a GOP filibuster threat nipped that effort in the bud.  And with his party defeated, Reid’s even less likely to find a moderate Republican like Susan Collins (R-ME) to defect to his side.  Even many Democrats, including staunch supporters of the Dream Act, are likely to blanch, given the stakes.  Twenty-three Senate Democrats are up for re-election in 2012 compared to just ten Republicans.  A controversial Dream vote is likely to incur the wrath of independent voters, costing some Democrats their seats.

For their own sake — and for their party’s sake — Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would do well to reconsider.

In the meantime, President Obama needs to fill the widening void between the two parties.  Since taking office, he’s placated his liberal base with pro-reform rhetoric while refusing to risk his capital or reputation on the issue.  Now, Obama’s ideally positioned to do for immigration reform what Bill Clinton did for welfare reform: tack to the center and use his extraordinary good will with the American people to build a broader consensus among moderates in the two parties.  For the good of the country, it’s time for Obama to step up — and out — on his own.

First, to defuse the far right, the president should formally “de-couple” amnesty from the rest of immigration reform. That doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning legalization as a goal — just placing it on the back burner, at least through 2012.  Of course, immigration advocates, including Dream supporters, will howl.  But most voters, including many Democrats, won’t.  They support the GOP’s strategy of “enforcement first” and are less inclined to be compassionate toward illegal immigrants when joblessness is so high.