Obama promises new immigration plan but keeps endgame close to his vest

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama promised Dec. 30 to introduce an immigration bill during 2013, but activists on all sides of the debate are trying to understand his strategy.

He may be gunning for a victory in the mid-term elections by introducing a bill so radical that it will spark an emotional controversy from whites, which would then spur many angry Latinos to vote Democratic in the 2014 midterm elections, said Robert de Posada, former head of a GOP-affiliated group, The Latino Coalition.

“The word that I’ve heard from many, is [that he will] submit a very, very liberal plan that most Republicans will not support, that most southern and moderate Democrats will not support,” he said.

When the bill fails, “they can announce once again that they tried [and that Latinos] need to rally in the next election,” said Posada, who helped President George W. Bush win 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, during the housing boom.

But that strategy would break Obama’s election-trail promise to help Latinos, said one Hill staffer who is working to pass an ambitious bill that would eventually provide citizenship to millions of Democratic-leaning, low-skill Latinos and their extended relations.

However, he noted, Obama hasn’t met with Democratic Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the leading Capitol Hill advocate for amnesty for illegal immigrants, since November.

“We don’t quite know what the White House is doing,” he said.

Obama sketched his 2013 plans during a low-pressure interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

“I’ve said that fixing our broken immigration system is a top priority,” he told interviewer David Gregory, who is now under police investigation for violating D.C. law by brandishing a 30-bullet magazine on his Dec. 23 show.

“I will introduce legislation in the first year to get that done,” Obama said.

“I think we have talked about it long enough. We know how we can fix it. We can do it in a comprehensive way that the American people support. That’s something we should get done.”

Gregory did not challenge any of Obama’s claims, nor did he question Obama about how his bill would impact the high unemployment rate among low-skilled Americans, especially African-Americans, in a an increasingly high-tech economy.

However, Obama’s language suggested that increased Latino immigration is a lower priority for him than other measures, and that he’s concerned any revamp would fail because of public opposition.

Many previous immigration reform bills have died when leading supporters quietly backed away amid furious public opposition to what was perceived as an attempt at a general amnesty. In 2007, then-Sen. Obama voted against a temporary-worker provision in a pending immigration bill, helping kill the overall legislation.

During his first term as president, Obama declined to push a comprehensive immigration bill, despite promising such a revamp while on the 2008 campaign trail.

In his NBC interview, Obama showed more enthusiasm about other priorities.

“We’ve got a huge opportunity around energy,” he said, “The most immediate thing I’ve got to do … is make sure that taxes are not going up on middle class families,” he claimed. Another priority, he added, is “rebuilding our infrastructure, which is broken.”

Obama also touted his new project to counter gun-violence. “Anybody who was up in Newtown, who talked to the parents, who talked to the families, understands that, you know, something fundamental in America has to change … you know, that was the worst day of my presidency,” he told Gregory.

“I will put forward a very specific [anti-violence] proposal based on the recommendations that Joe Biden’s task force is putting together as we speak,” he said.

De Posada argued that the House Speaker John Boehner should wait for Obama’s immigration bill before making a move on immigration. If it is too radical, he can force a vote and force Democratic legislators to vote for or against Obama’s bill.

During Bush’s term, for example, African-American Democrats kept a low profile on immigration, ensuring that the issue was not brought up for a vote in the House in 2007 and 2008.

“A bunch of Democrats are not going to be supportive,” de Posada predicted. That rejection would damage Obama’s standing among Latinos in the 2014 race, he said, and help GOP outreach.

De Posada said the GOP can win some sympathy among Latinos by pushing an ambitious bill that would welcome temporary migrant workers from across the United States’ southern border. In turn, that sympathy will ensure that Latinos actually listen to the GOP’s economic and social messages, he said.

However, various right-of-center immigration reformers are already trying to win passage of small-scale measures that don’t include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, or invitations to new migrant workers.

The small-scale bills can help American workers and high-tech employers, and also split the various ethnic, ideological and business groups now pushing for easier immigration, say the reform advocates.

A comprehensive bill “will not pass, just as it didn’t last time around [and if Obama] were actually serious, he would agree to a piecemeal approach where each piece could garner sufficient support to pass,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, an immigration-reform group.

Progressives such as Gutierrez oppose the small-scale measures, and instead seek to maximize the immigration of Democratic-leaning groups, including Hispanics.

In September, the right-of-center reformers pushed for a small-scale bill that would convert 50,000 so-called “Diversity Visas” into a program that would bring high-IQ tech experts into the country. That program does not currently consider potential immigrants’ skills, and instead awards visas to people from countries with few immigrants already in the United States.

However, Gutierrez and other progressives defeated the measure in a House vote. “If you support this bill, you are saying that one group of immigrants is better than another and one type of educated, degree-holding person and their work is more important than others,” Gutierrez declared Nov. 30.

“They are saying my father — and I resent it — my father was too stupid to make it, but he put two kids through college and one in the House of Representatives,” said Gutierrez, who chairs the immigration task force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Gutierrez is pushing Obama to propose an ambitious immigration overhaul, but he complained Dec. 20 on MSNBC that he has been excluded from White House planning.

“Look, it’s great that Eva Longoria from ‘Desperate Housewives’ is out there, meeting with the president, but maybe he should gather more of the immigrant community so we can begin to polish up that immigration policy and get a strategy so that we can really start,” he said Dec. 22.

Those supporting a comprehensive bill that includes amnesty for illegal immigrants say Democrats should push for an ambitious measure, because the GOP’s defeat in the 2012 election has persuaded top Republican leaders to back such a proposal.

Gutierrez has met with two GOP leaders, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

In the 2012 election, Obama won 77 percent of the Hispanic vote — despite a depressed economy — chiefly by showing his sympathy to Hispanics. He demonstrated that sympathy by rolling back enforcement of immigration laws and by announcing that he would unilaterally grant work-permits to an estimated 1.5 million younger illegal immigrants.

However, even GOP groups that touted the shortfall of Latino GOP support in November recognize that immigration-friendly policies aren’t enough to win Latino votes.

“Even if Republicans ‘fixed’ their ‘immigration problem’ it would not be sufficient to significantly increase the Republican vote share from Hispanics … we are seen as the party of the rich which does not care about the middle class or lower income families,” said a Dec. 20 report by the polling firm, Voter Consumer Research Inc.

Other GOP advocates say any effort to gain 1 percent of the electorate by increasing Hispanic support from 27 percent to 40 percent is less important than boosting the surprisingly low November turnout by GOP-leaning working-class and middle-class white voters.

Jenks and other right-of-center reformers say an immigration amnesty could damage the GOP’s support among working-class and middle-class Americans who have been hit hard by the economy and by immigration.

High levels of legal and illegal immigration are already hurting employment among lower-skilled Americans, especially when more than 20 million Americans are already unemployed or underemployed.

For example, among those illegal immigrants eligible for Obama’s work permits, fewer than 10 percent have two-year or four-year college degrees, according to an August 2012 analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. Roughly 75 percent are high-school graduates or high-school dropouts, the institute estimated.

But white workers can be reconciled to immigration, de Posada said, if they see how an influx of low-wage workers can drive down prices.

“The white middle-class and working-class understand the benefits of having a workforce that keep prices down for a lot of products,” he said, adding that Republicans “never made immigration a pocketbook issue … [that] can be helpful to working-class and middle-class Americans … [and] make us competitive against other workers, against Asians and Indians.”

The Latino immigrant workers don’t have to be put on a track to citizenship, but instead could be temporarily imported whenever employers need new labor, he added.

Follow Neil on Twitter