State of the Union

Obama’s 2013 State of the Union and the Immigration Reform Moment

In his State of the Union address, the president backed away from policy prescriptions and used GOP rhetoric on immigration. He—and the lawmakers key to legislative success—know now’s the time to push a reform deal through.

02.13.13 6:12 AM ET

President Obama is at a moment of maximum political leverage. But for all the bipartisan framing of his State of the Union speech, the basic fact of divided government makes legislative progress difficult.

Immigration reform is the great exception. Six years after President Bush tried and failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform with odd-couple senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain, both parties have recognized that now is the time to get it done. Immigration reform is their self-interest as well as the national interest.

Listen carefully to the president’s language: “Real reform means strong border security … Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship—a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”

This is self-consciously Republican rhetoric. “Learn English” and “going to the back of the line” are not typical liberal applause lines. And paradoxically, the initial framing of border security is an area of policy strength for the Obama administration. The number of convicted criminals deported has increased 70 percent, while arrests at the border are up and attempted crossings are down.

But the bipartisan “gang of eight” senators pushing for immigration reform this time around is the real key to legislative success—and that’s why Obama is stepping back from proposing policy prescriptions. He understands the sad fact that his very name makes selling such prescriptions to the base more difficult for Republicans.

Among the gang of eight backing comprehensive immigration reform is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who gave the official Republican response to the State of the Union.

Compelling but unfortunately cotton-mouthed, Rubio’s language on immigration reform paralleled the president’s: “We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest. We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”

That is tepid rhetoric by some standards, but the endorsement of what would have been attacked as “amnesty” six years ago contains the seeds of success.

After the ass-kicking of 2012, Republicans finally realize that they cannot afford to alienate the Hispanic community indefinitely. Compared to Mitt Romney’s pathetic 27 percent of the Latino vote, the Bush family looks prophetic—and Rubio is the embodiment of the evolution they would like to take place in their party.

The congruence of interests creates this historic opportunity.

“Tonight was refreshing for its lack of immigration demagoguery,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “While significant policy differences are yet to be addressed, President Obama’s State of the Union address, and Senator Rubio’s Republican response, indicate a new consensus on immigrants and America is emerging. Obama pointed to support from Bibles, badges, and business who seek a just immigration solution. And Rubio called for a responsible immigration solution for the undocumented. On this most political of nights, in some ways, their immigration comments spoke to both parties.”

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We are still a long way from success. The 50 or so House radicals almost certainly will oppose comprehensive immigration reform when it comes to a vote—making a truly bipartisan bill functionally necessary as well as ideal.

On Wednesday, the president is taking his State of the Union proposals on the road in a bit of campaign-style salesmanship. But while boosting poll numbers can help give cowardly legislators courage, it can’t write legislation. There is urgency, opportunity, and self-interest—combined with a president committed to making immigration reform a core part of his legacy. The failures of the past might help to finally focus the collective mind in Washington.

“Obama, Rubio, and their colleagues have a tall task ahead of them,” warns Noorani. “Confront the devilish policy details that lie ahead and galvanize the support of their parties around a pragmatic, humane immigration solution.” There is an added inducement in his eyes: “If either party reverts to the immigration politics of past years, voters across the political spectrum will hold them accountable.”