A Hard Line on Immigration Reform Lurks in Obama's Inaugural Speech

... Obama put Republicans in a tough spot on immigration
Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

President Obama’s second Inaugural Address was heavy on the theme of unity. He used the word “together” seven times in the 15-minute speech. Buried beneath the comity was the prelude to a coming fight with Republicans on an issue that divides them: immigration reform.

Obama couched his comments about immigration in uplifting language. “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” he said. “Until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce, rather than expelled from our country.”

On the surface, there’s nothing controversial about that. Increasing the number of visas for highly skilled immigrants is one of the few policy goals Obama and the GOP agree on. That reflects a big change in Republican thinking in recent months, as party leaders have softened their anti-immigration rhetoric after nearly three-quarters of Hispanic voters cast ballots for Obama in November.

If visas for highly skilled workers were the only issue, Democrats and Republicans could quickly resolve it. But it’s not. What Obama didn’t say in his speech is that he will insist on tying the visas to broader changes in immigration laws, which many Republicans strongly object to. Earlier in January, White House officials told reporters that the president won’t agree to raise the visa caps without reforms that include a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S.

These immigrants aren’t the “bright young” future job creators Obama lauded in his speech. Most work dirty jobs for low wages, and many lack high school diplomas. They’re the undocumented workers Republican governors in Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, and other states have driven away with tough anti-immigration laws.

It’s not lost on Republicans that Obama’s everything-at-once approach exploits a rift in the GOP, which is struggling to find a policy its factions can accept. For many House Republicans from Southern and border states, words such as “legalization” and “citizenship” are nonstarters. Obama is just dangling visas for the highly skilled as a way of pressuring conservatives to go along with his “real goal,” GOP Representative Lamar Smith of Texas says in an e-mail, “which is mass amnesty for illegal immigrants.”

Still, party leaders and other prominent conservatives—House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida—are urging a compromise, yet to be defined, between “throw them out” and “make them citizens.”

“There are people who are saying, let’s look at the whole problem,” says Alfonso Aguilar, a former immigration adviser to George W. Bush who’s now executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington advocacy group pressing for immigration reform. “Clearly, we can’t deport them all.”

Rubio has offered the only concrete ideas for compromise—requiring undocumented workers to pay back taxes and a fine, participate in a guest worker program, and wait several years for a green card to avoid the appearance they’re cutting in line ahead of legal immigrants. Even Republicans who generally agree with such an approach may refuse to admit it. Congress’s last major immigration bill, in 2006, failed in part because anti-immigration groups besieged Republicans who supported the effort with angry calls and attack ads.

This time, a new super PAC, Republicans for Immigration Reform, is promising to give cash and political cover to Republicans willing to back a bill. “We want members to know there are resources that will be available to them if they support a broad-based approach to reform,” says co-founder Charles Spies, a former counsel for the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. (He won’t say how much he’s raised or from whom.)

Aguilar is optimistic that immigration can be retooled as a conservative issue Republicans can get behind. “If you’re for the free market, which are the basic tenets of Reagan conservatism, then you can’t be against immigration,” he says. No one expects minds to change quickly. That means skilled would-be immigrants hoping for the door to open could be in for a long wait. They’ve become the essential bargaining chip in what will likely be a tense, protracted negotiation—between Democrats and Republicans, and Republicans and Republicans.

( An earlier version of this story ran online. )

    The bottom line: A new super PAC, Republicans for Immigration Reform, vows money and political cover for conservatives willing to compromise on the issue.

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