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Obama's Incoherent Immigration Speech

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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I count three ways President Barack Obama's speech on immigration last night contradicted itself.

First, there was the absolutist language he used to justify his policy -- coupled with restrictions that aren't compatible with such language. The argument Obama made for his policy of offering legal status to millions of illegal immigrants was highly moralistic: We're not supposed to rip apart families, we can't deny people "a chance to make amends" and so forth. But you don't qualify for the new forbearance if you've only been here a short time, or are coming here tomorrow. No chance to make amends for tomorrow's illegal immigrant.

Immigration

Second, the president insisted that all he was doing was exercising routine prosecutorial discretion. Yet he also explained that he was engaging in a quasi-legislative act. When speaking in one vein, he made it sound as though the policy he was announcing was old news: "We're going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security." But if that's all he was doing, he wouldn't have needed to make a speech.

He was more candid at other times, when he made clear that his policy was a partial substitute for the legislation he wants, which would offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. But his political challenge to Congress -- I'm acting in your place because you haven't, and to make you act -- makes no sense if he's just exercising prosecutorial discretion. It makes sense if he's legislating from the White House.

Third, Obama invoked public opinion to legitimize his action -- even though the public doesn't appear to be on his side. "Most Americans support the types of reforms I've talked about tonight," he said. That's an arguable point. But most Americans don't support Obama's imposing those policies unilaterally. Polls shouldn't trump our constitutional tradition: You know, all that stuff about Congress writing the laws. But the polls aren't on Obama's side anyway.

It was a speech, then, that was internally incoherent from top to bottom. Its tone clashed with the policies Obama actually intends to pursue. And it offered no plausible defense of those policies based on the Constitution, on a consistent moral argument or even on public opinion. It's hard to imagine that it convinced many people about the propriety of the president's actions. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net