Republicans greeted President Barack Obama’s call to arms on immigration reform Thursday with a demand of their own: that Obama visit the troubled U.S.-Mexico border and see for himself why it must be secured.
It was a strong reaction to the president’s first policy speech on an issue that so far has defied a legislative solution. The conflict showed how unified the GOP has become in opposing any plan it views as amnesty — and how tough it will be for Obama to revive a key administration goal after months of neglect.
The speech seemed as much about keeping immigration reform alive — and assuaging immigrant rights groups — as an imminent, presidential push for reform.
And it took a decidedly political turn when the president called out Senate Republicans for standing in the way of reform. He told the audience at American University in Washington that 11 Senate Republicans who had supported reforms in 2008 were unsure about their votes this year — and needed to be prodded.
“Without bipartisan support, which we had two years ago, we cannot solve this problem,” Obama told the gathering of community and religious leaders. “We cannot pass [it] without Republican votes. … That is the political and mathematical reality.”
It was a far cry from 2008, when President George W. Bush championed the cause of immigration reform. He was joined by a would-be president, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has abandoned the effort while trying to defeat a primary challenger from his right.
But the political winds — intensified by a recession and tea party activism — have shifted. Conservatives, including McCain himself, blasted Obama for now explicitly downgrading their priority — securing the U.S.-Mexico border — below a new path to citizenship favored by many Democrats.
“If the president had actually visited the Arizona-Mexico border, he would understand the real threats Americans are facing from violence along the border related to drug trafficking and human smuggling,” McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said in a statement. McCain has called on Obama to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to the border, four times what the president has pledged.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who met with Obama at the White House last month after signing the state’s controversial immigration law, called the president’s address a “helpless speech.” The Republican governor, who is seeking reelection and subscribes to the secure-the-border-first approach, expressed frustration that Obama has yet to visit the Southwestern border since taking office last year.
“We are the gateway [for illegal immigrants]. We are the one with the porous border,” Brewer said in a Thursday interview with Phoenix’s KTAR-FM, “and I would appreciate it very much if he personally would come and give us a little respect to look at our border and see what we are putting up with on a daily basis.”
The Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, which represents ranchers in the state, has demanded tougher border security after one of its own, Robert Krentz Jr., was shot to death by a suspected illegal immigrant who had come 20 miles north of the Mexico border.
“I don’t think he truly understands what the situation is. One of the best experiences he can have — similar to [President George W.] Bush going to Iraq — is to come down here and see what it is like,” said Patrick Bray, ACGA’s executive vice president, who tuned in to Obama’s speech Thursday.
Though the president said crime along the border has ebbed, “we still have home invasions; we still have robberies,” Bray added. “There is still a tremendous threat down on the border for our ranchers and our community.”
An Obama spokesman didn’t immediately respond, but top administration officials — including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, and Obama adviser John Brennan — have made numerous trips to the region.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose district spans 300 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, said he sees no advantage to the president making a personal visit to the border.
“If the president went, it would confirm everything he said today,” said Grijalva, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who attended the speech. “If he went, he wouldn’t come back agreeing with John McCain.”
Ironically enough, Obama sounded like McCain — circa 2006 — on Thursday.
He declared that being American was “not a matter of blood or birth” but of “fidelity” to the principles of democracy — and laid out his arguments against the Arizona law, which allows police to question anyone whom they reasonably suspect is in the country illegally. The administration is likely to challenge the law in court.
“It’s not just that the law Arizona passed is divisive, although it has fanned the flames of an already contentious debate,” Obama said. “Laws like Arizona’s put huge pressures on local law enforcement to enforce rules that ultimately are unenforceable. It puts pressure on already hard-strapped state and local budgets.”
The president added, “It makes it difficult for people here illegally to report crimes, driving a wedge between communities and law enforcement, making our streets more dangerous and the jobs of our police officers more difficult.
“These laws also have the potential of violating the rights [of the immigrants] because of what they look like and how they sound.”
But the address was also noteworthy for what it didn’t contain: a timetable for passing the bill, a framework for what a legislative deal might look like or an announcement of a Justice Department lawsuit against the statute.
The president, who met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus earlier this week, reiterated his general commitment to principles for reform, which Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) laid out earlier this year. Their provisions include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, as well as beefed-up border enforcement and monitoring.
The estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, Obama said, “make a mockery of those who go through the process legally.”
He concluded with a long tribute to the role immigrants have played in American life, quoting extensively from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which is carved into the base of the Statue of Liberty.
The president quoted its most famous lines, starting with “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but he left out the less politically correct next line: “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
After a tense meeting with immigrants’ rights advocates at the White House earlier this week, Obama promised the Department of Homeland Security would investigate charges of improper detentions of immigrants in federal facilities, according to an administration official.
And pro-reform Democrats seemed heartened by the fact that Obama put the issue on his agenda at all.
“The president is right to lead on this issue,” said Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee.
And the Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking on a conference call with Obama administration officials Thursday afternoon, praised the speech as the president’s best effort since his 2009 address in Cairo.
“It was an historic moment of White House vision like [Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats — a moral tone that has reframed the debate,” Jackson said.