Obama Sends Mixed Messages on Immigration

Posted May 28, 2010 at 5:30pm

President Barack Obama appears to want it both ways when it comes to immigration reform.

Obama continues to press for comprehensive immigration reform, yet he announced last week that he plans to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, along with $500 million in new resources. The move put on full display the array of concerns dividing Congressional Democrats on how to address illegal immigration while highlighting Republicans unity for a border-security-only approach to the issue.

“We have to have a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. The time to get moving on this is now,” the president said during a Thursday press conference. But within minutes Obama was touting his new plan to dispatch more troops to help the U.S. do “a better job dealing with trafficking along the border.”

In the absence of a larger strategy for tackling illegal immigration, Senate Democrats went to the well Thursday and cast a series of spotty votes that underscored the regional and ideological differences festering in their party over the issue.

While most Democrats opposed the string of GOP border amendments to the $60 billion war supplemental, California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer voted to boost National Guard levels and spending well beyond Obama’s proposal. And moderate Arkansas Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor broke with their party to back the GOP amendments, as did Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.).

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who opposed the GOP proposals but backs Obama’s plan, dismissed the idea that addressing border security on its own dooms the short-term prospects of passing broader immigration reform.

“I think it’s important to show we’re serious about securing the border,” the Rhode Island Democrat said.

But Sen. Bob Menendez said the idea that there is a pressing need to take on border security first and then move to comprehensive reforms is a false choice created by conservatives.

“Even under our version [of comprehensive reform], border security is a trigger” for more reforms to the immigration system, the New Jersey Democrat said. He accused Obama of “bending to the political pressure from Republicans” with this call for more border troops.

Still, he added, the patchwork of Democratic votes on the GOP border amendments makes the case “that comprehensive reform is needed.”

Over in the House, senior Democratic aides had different takes on how Obama’s border security plan will play out in their Caucus.

Beefing up border security right now “is good for our Members,” one Democratic leadership aide said. In particular, the president’s action will help insulate vulnerable Members who have demanded tougher enforcement of immigration laws, while allowing them to avoid tough votes on the issue before the November elections.

But another senior Democratic aide complained that Obama is giving mixed signals on his commitment to comprehensive reform by taking piecemeal actions. “Members are a little peeved that the president keeps stringing along the dream that immigration reform gets done this year,” the aide said.

Arizona Democrats, who are among the most involved in border security debates, fall on both ends of the spectrum.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who has been hammering Obama for months over the need for more National Guard deployments to her state’s southern border, is now praising the president for fulfilling her request. Arizona recently enacted a controversial law requiring that individuals carry documentation proving their immigration status and that law enforcement officers question people they suspect may be in the country illegally.

“It’s a first step,” Giffords said. Asked whether she thought the timing of Obama’s announcement was for political reasons, she said: “I can’t speak to that. I certainly know the president has had his hands full.”

But fellow Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva said the president’s new border security push is purely political and “really will make no difference in terms of security issues” because it doesn’t address the larger need for immigration reform.

“He’s trying to short-circuit what the Republicans were planning in the Senate and still give some Democrats cover. It’s not going to work,” he said. Proponents of a border-security-only approach to immigration reform will just be “insatiable” about asking for more troops instead of working toward comprehensive reforms, he said.

Grijalva said the White House told Congressional Hispanic Caucus members about its border security plans about two hours ahead of the announcement — and many were not happy.

“My reaction? Bullshit,” Grijalva said. And Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who chairs the CHC Immigration Task Force, “was a little more explicit” in his frustrations, the Arizona Democrat said.

CHC Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez said caucus members in border states have told her that they won’t oppose stand-alone border security bills, but they know “quite well” that is not the solution. The New York Democrat expressed frustration with Obama backing what Republicans wanted simply to pre-empt their efforts to advance the issue themselves.

“It does bother us that every time the Republicans scream on the other side, we have to scream louder to show that we are tough,” she said. Action on the issue comes down to “who will outmaneuver or overpower the other, and I think that is not responsible.”