Obama Stresses Need for Immigration Reform at White House Conference25 Apr 2011
On April 19, President Barack Obama brought together a bipartisan group of national leaders for a White House forum on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). The guests represented a cross-section of major stakeholder groups, including leaders from the business community, organized labor, government, law enforcement, and the religious community. Among them were several prominent Latinos, as well as current and former political leaders. The guest list included luminaries such as former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and William Bratton, former Los Angeles Police Chief. (For the complete listing, see Schwarzenegger, Bloomberg at White House for Immigration Meeting, by Michael A Memoli, Los Angeles Times, 19.Apr.2011.)
According to the White House Press Office, the meeting was a listening session, a chance for the President “to hear their ideas and suggestions on how to tackle our shared challenge of fixing our nation’s broken immigration system in order to meet our 21st century economic and security needs.” (See Readout of the President’s Meeting with Stakeholders on Fixing the Broken Immigration System, White House Press Office, 19.Apr.2011.) The meeting was closed to the press, leaving the White House account as the only official source of information. According to the White House:
“The President reiterated his deep disappointment that Congressional action on immigration reform has stalled and that the DREAM Act failed to pass in the U.S. Senate after passing with a bipartisan majority in the U.S. House in December. The President listened to the stakeholders describe a variety of problems that result from the broken system, including:
- Educating the best and brightest but then shipping that talent overseas;
- Concerns over the ability of businesses to reliably hire and retain a legal workforce;
- And the need to level the playing field for American workers by ending the underground labor market.
“In addition, local law enforcement officers expressed concern that without reform, enforcing federal immigration laws is a distraction from their important public safety and crime fighting mandates to keep their local communities safe, and faith leaders highlighted the damage to families and communities when families are separated, including parents who are taken away from their U.S. Citizen children.”
The White House reports that the President reaffirmed his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform “that both strengthens security at our borders while restoring accountability to the broken immigration system.” Notably absent was any mention of a path to citizenship for the 10.8 million illegal immigrants currently living here. Perhaps this marks a shift toward a chastened pragmatism in the President’s thinking on CIR; it may be nothing more than an acknowledgment of the reality that nothing smacking of “amnesty” will get past the teabaggers and other immigration hardliners in the House of Representatives.
The official Press Office statement studiously avoids mentioning the state immigration enforcement efforts, alluding to this only glancingly, saying “the only way to fix what’s broken about our immigration system is through legislative action in Congress”. (Not surprisingly, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer – she of S.B. 1070 fame – was not on the guest list, a fact she complained about publically).
According to White House accounts, the President also stressed the need for civil debate – something everyone should be able to agree on – and emphasized that he cannot singlehandedly push CIR through the political thickets of Capitol Hill. This, more than anything, may have been the point of the meeting: that the President cannot be expected to pass CIR all by himself. In recent weeks, the President has been assailed by members of his own party, particularly in the Latino community, for failing to pass the CIR legislation he promised to deliver within his first year in office. Adding Ides-of-March intrigue to this, fellow Democrat and Chicagoan Luis Gutierrez has been leading the charge, rallying Latino immigration activists against the President and threatening to withhold Latino support in 2012 if CIR fails to happen before the election.
The White House meeting may well have served another purpose. The White House says the President “urged meeting participants to take a public and active role to lead a constructive and civil debate on the need to fix the broken immigration system,” to “bring the debate to communities around the country and involve many sectors of American society…” By rallying influential centrists, and asking for their help, he just might get it. However, given the extreme polarization in this debate, it’s an open question whether the center can hold, when the best lack all conviction and the worst of the immigration activists are filled with a passionate intensity.