Political Hay

Amnesty Again

Despite Obama's cautious words, his early actions and appointments suggest he won't put immigration enforcement first.

By 5.11.09

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Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Barack Obama and his immigration-policy team are ready to give amnesty another chance.

This month, President Obama begins his push for "comprehensive immigration reform," an effort at which both his predecessor and his 2008 general election opponent failed repeatedly. Despite the support of liberals like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) both saw their efforts founder on the questions of border security and what to do with the 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.

Try as they might, neither Bush nor McCain were ever able to convince the American people that they were willing to do what it takes to secure the country's porous borders. Whenever Bush or McCain said "immigration reform," the voters heard "amnesty now, enforcement never." Much as happened when the first major bipartisan amnesty, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, was passed in 1986.

For this reason, Obama has tread carefully. Although Democrats control both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue and the enforcement-first Republicans who defeated two Bush-era immigration bills have been reduced to an ineffectual rump, the immigration issue is fraught with political peril -- especially for Democrats representing historically Republican congressional districts, many of whom were recruited by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel himself in his past role as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman.

Emanuel's skepticism about the political appeal of the Bush-McCain-Kennedy approach to illegal immigration was thought to relegate the issue to the backburner until Obama is safely re-elected. But in April, the Wall Street Journal reported that Emanuel had emerged as an "unexpected ally" of comprehensive reformers and a "backer of immigration action."

Yet the president seems mindful of Emanuel's concerns about immigration politics and is proceeding cautiously -- so much so that one reporter pronounced him a convert to the enforcement-first position. The Washington Times noted that Obama's budget "calls for extra money to build an employee-verification system and to pay for more personnel and equipment to patrol the border."

"If the American people don't feel like you can secure the borders," Obama acknowledged at a press conference, "then it's hard to strike a deal that would get people out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship who are already here, because the attitude of the average American is going to be, 'Well, you're just going to have hundreds of thousands of more coming in each year.' "

So has Obama abandoned all hope of an immigration amnesty and embraced the pro-enforcement position? Don't count on it. One of the few programs on the chopping block in the president's round of paltry budget cuts -- $17 billion in the context of a $3.4 trillion budget -- was the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). SCAAP reimburses state governments for the cost of incarcerating convicts and criminals awaiting trial who are in the country illegally.

When President Bush tried to scrap SCAAP, Democrats in Congress and from border states protested. Congressman John Spratt (D-S.C.), now chairman of the House Budget Committee, protested that "the need [for this program] cannot be overstated." Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who had to beat a Republican immigration hawk to get to Congress, complained that SCAAP "has been consistently underfunded." Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, now Obama's secretary of homeland security, penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed demanding that the funds be restored.

But the biggest sign that amnesty remains in Obama's plans is the appointment of Esther Olavarria as deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security. After years spent working for immigrant advocacy groups in Florida, she came to Washington, D.C. to work for Ted Kennedy as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee -- where some credit her with writing the McCain-Kennedy immigration plan.

"She wrote the bill," Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies flatly told the Miami Herald. "She was Kennedy's main immigration person. She was really driving that bus." Although that bus went over a cliff to political defeat, people on the other side of the debate agree. Cheryl Little co-founded the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center with Olvarria and argues that her colleague will "fight tooth and nail" for more liberal immigration laws.

Whatever her role in drafting McCain-Kennedy, Olvarria clearly prefers it to other alternatives. Speaking at a meeting of Irish immigration activists, the Irish Voice quoted her as describing a bill by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) as "heavy on enforcement" and legislation by Sen. Arlen Specter (then-R-Pa.) as containing "the worst solutions for the undocumented."

It is worth nothing that both of the above bills were widely regarded as amnesties in their own right, albeit with more conditions and stronger enforcement provisions. But such provisions were not popular with Olvarria's audience. The Irish Voice reported that illegal immigrants present complained that it was becoming too difficult to get driver's licenses and people were starting to go home.

"Here you have someone who has spent her entire career looking at immigration issues entirely from the perspective of the immigrant," Don Todd, research director of Americans for Limited Government, told TAS. "She is not going to start looking at them from a pro-enforcement perspective now that she is working on these issues at DHS."

The failure to respect the fact that a nation of immigrants can also be a nation of laws has doomed "comprehensive" legislation in the past. Obama, with the help of advisers like Olvarria, is about to put this to the test once again.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.