President Obama at the Border (NY Times)

Editorial – NY Times
President Obama at the Border
Published: May 10, 2011

President Obama went to the border in El Paso on Tuesday and delivered a speech on immigration reform. He didn’t present a bill or issue any executive orders or set deadlines for action. Aides say his goal was to “create a pathway” and “a sense of urgency” to “move forward.” That is a start but not nearly enough.
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The speech was right on its merits. The immigration system is a shambles. Millions live here outside the law. Visa policies are too restrictive, cruelly separating families and driving away talented university graduates to other countries. As Mr. Obama dryly noted, “We train them to create jobs for our competition.”

He said our current laws stifle opportunity for exactly the people for whom this economy needs to recover: entrepreneurs, students and low-wage workers. Illegality feeds “a massive underground economy that exploits a cheap source of labor,” Mr. Obama said. This isn’t fair to American workers, or to the undocumented — “the overwhelming majority” of whom, he said, “are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families.”

Mr. Obama was also right when he said that the country has heard “a lot of blame and a lot of politics and a lot of ugly rhetoric around immigration.” After listing the many ways his administration has “gone above and beyond” what Republicans had demanded as their price for reform — flooding the border with troops and technology to seal it tighter than ever — he noted that the Republicans were still not satisfied. “Maybe they’ll need a moat,” he joked. “Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat.”

Mr. Obama’s description of the problem was accurate, and his prescription the right one: a “good-faith effort” by both parties to pass comprehensive measures that combine border security with assimilation, not mass expulsion, for illegal immigrants who qualify.

To move things forward, Mr. Obama will have to do a lot more. He needs to outline legislation, push Congressional leaders — including those in his own party — to back it and make the case repeatedly to Americans.

The president also needs to get his own policies in order. For all his talk of supporting the hopes of the undocumented, his administration has been doubling down on the failed strategy of mass expulsion. It is pressing state and local police to join in an ill-conceived program called Secure Communities, which sends arrested people’s fingerprints through federal immigration databases, turning all local officers and jails into arms of the Department of Homeland Security.

Many lawmakers and police agencies say it erodes public safety by making immigrants, especially victims of domestic violence, afraid to report crimes. They worry about giving rogue officers a convenient tool for racial profiling. And they feel betrayed because what the administration once billed as a transparent, voluntary program aimed only at dangerous convicted criminals turns out to be none of those things. The Homeland Security Department’s own data show that more than half of those deported under the program have no criminal records or committed only minor crimes.

Mr. Obama and the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, should heed the growing calls by lawmakers in California, Illinois, New York and other places to abandon Secure Communities to preserve public safety.

As for the broader issue of immigration reform, Mr. Obama’s aides insisted on Tuesday that he did, indeed, have a plan that interested Americans could read on the White House Web site. If Mr. Obama is really committed to this issue it’s going to take a lot more than that.