“I’m going to do my part to lead a constructive and civil debate on these issues.”
— Barack Obama, speech on immigration, El Paso, Texas, May 10
Constructive and civil debate — like the one Obama initiated just four weeks ago on deficit reduction? The speech in which he accused the Republicans of abandoning families of autistic and Down syndrome kids? The debate in which Obama’s secretary of health and human services said that the Republican plan would make old folks “die sooner”?
In this same spirit of comity and mutual respect, Obama’s most recent invitation to civil discourse — on immigration — came just 11 minutes after he accused opponents of moving the goal posts on border enforcement. “Maybe they’ll need a moat,” he said sarcastically. “Maybe they want alligators in the moat.”
Nice touch. Looks like the Tucson truce — no demonization, no cross-hairs metaphors — is officially over. After all, the Republicans want to kill off the elderly, throw the disabled in the snow and watch alligators lunch on illegal immigrants.
The El Paso speech is notable not for breaking any new ground on immigration, but for perfectly illustrating Obama’s political style: the professorial, almost therapeutic, invitation to civil discourse, wrapped around the basest of rhetorical devices — charges of malice compounded with accusations of bad faith. “They’ll never be satisfied,” said Obama about border control. “And I understand that. That’s politics.”
How understanding. The other side plays “politics,” Obama acts in the public interest. Their eyes are on poll numbers, political power, the next election; Obama’s rest fixedly on the little children.
This impugning of motives is an Obama constant. “They” play politics with deficit reduction, with government shutdowns, with health care. And now immigration. It is ironic that such a charge should be made in a speech that is nothing but politics. There is zero chance of any immigration legislation passing Congress in the next two years. El Paso was simply an attempt to gin up the Hispanic vote as part of an openly political two-city, three-event campaign swing in preparation for 2012.
Accordingly, the El Paso speech featured two other staples: the breathtaking invention and the statistical sleight of hand.
“The [border] fence is now basically complete,” asserted the president. Complete? There are now 350 miles of pedestrian fencing along the Mexican border. The border is 1,954 miles long. That’s 18 percent. And only one-tenth of that 18 percent is the double and triple fencing that has proved so remarkably effective in, for example, the Yuma sector. Another 299 miles — 15 percent — are vehicle barriers that pedestrians can walk right through.
Obama then boasted that on his watch 31 percent more drugs have been seized, 64 percent more weapons — proof of how he has secured the border. And for more proof: Apprehension of illegal immigrants is down 40 percent. Down? Indeed, says Obama, this means that fewer people are trying to cross the border.
Interesting logic. Seizures of drugs and guns go up — proof of effective border control. Seizures of people go down — yet more proof of effective border control. Up or down, it matters not. Whatever the numbers, Obama vindicates himself.
You can believe this flimflam or you can believe the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. The GAO reported in February that less than half the border is under “operational control” of the government. Which undermines the entire premise of Obama’s charge that, because the border is effectively secure, “Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement” didn’t really mean it.
I count myself among those who really do mean it. I have little doubt that most Americans would be quite willing to regularize and legalize the current millions of illegal immigrants if they were convinced that this was the last such cohort, as evidenced by, say, a GAO finding that the border is under full operational control and certification to the same effect by the governors of the four Southern border states.
Americans are a generous people. Upon receipt of objective and reliable evidence that the border is secure — not Obama’s infinitely manipulable interdiction statistics — the question would be settled and the immigrants legalized.
Why doesn’t Obama put such a provision in comprehensive immigration legislation? Because for Obama, immigration reform is not about legislation, it’s about re-election. If I may quote the president: I understand that. That’s politics.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.