Obama's Immigration Reform Surge

The president gave a big speech on immigration today, though the bill promised during his campaign is nowhere to be seen. Bryan Curtis on the sudden about-face.

The president gave a big speech on immigration today, though the bill promised during his campaign is nowhere to be seen. Bryan Curtis on the sudden about-face and Obama's White House meeting with immigration advocates.

Last week, immigration reform seemed to have slipped off Barack Obama’s agenda, banished by the economy, the oil spill, and the long-range sniping of Stanley McChrystal. But the last few days brought fresh momentum. Obama twice huddled with immigration allies at the White House, and he gave a big speech on immigration Thursday afternoon. So what happened?

One immigration activist, who met with Obama on Monday, was surprised when the invitation for a meeting with POTUS arrived last week. Obama was in the room Monday for 30 or 40 minutes, attendees said. At first, everyone wallowed in mutual frustration. The president was upset because he wasn’t getting anywhere and thought he wasn’t getting much credit for the incremental steps he had taken. Advocates were upset because of promises Obama hadn’t kept; he’d pledged to begin reforming immigration law within one year of taking office.

“It was clear the president was ready to move,” said one immigration activist who was at the White House this week.

Bryan Curtis: Latino Media Superstar Trashes Obama But spirits lifted as the meeting wore on. Obama told the group about Thursday’s speech to the nation. He said he’d undertaken a review of the Department of Homeland Security they’d asked for. And unlike a similar White House confab held back in March, this time Obama came bearing a legislative strategy to get the law passed.

“It was more upbeat when we left than when it started,” said Deepak Bhargava, the executive director of the Center for Community Change, who was in the meeting.

Another attendee, Ali Noorani, of the National Immigration Forum, added, “It was clear the president was ready to move.”

Bill Burton, Obama’s deputy press secretary, told an Air Force One press gaggle on Wednesday that Obama had noted the immigration chatter and “thought this was a good time to talk plainly with the American people.” Talking about immigration reform, if not moving it along, provides Obama with some advantages.

One is defusing a ticking political bomb. Though Obama didn’t say it during the meeting Monday, the Justice Department is reportedly about to file a lawsuit against Arizona over its Senate Bill 1070. “The short-term reaction is going to be political feeding frenzy on this, particularly from the right,” said Marshall Fitz, the director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. By giving a big speech, Fitz said, the White House can contextualize the lawsuit as not being about the federal government attacking Arizona, but about Obama following his long-held beliefs on immigration policy. And perhaps that holds off some of the feeding frenzy.

Second, Obama now has new allies on immigration. In recent weeks, two leading conservatives declared themselves for reform: Rupert Murdoch, the Fox chieftan, last week, and Richard Land, who runs the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, in May. Neither did much beyond endorse the broad outlines of reform, like a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. But the twin spires of the GOP, the pro-business coalition and the social-issues coalition, have effectively blessed change.

“Things are fundamentally different now than they were two months ago,” said Noorani.

A third reason to give a speech: Obama could use some good copy in the Spanish-language media. On Monday, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos denounced Obama’s inaction on immigration reform, saying, “Obama broke a promise.” A June Gallup survey showed Obama’s popularity rating among Latinos had fallen 12 points since January.

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On the publicity front, mission accomplished: Ramos was set to lead with news of Obama’s speech on Univision’s newscast, Noticiero Univision, Wednesday night. But “a good speech, even a great speech, won’t make it anymore,” Ramos said. “The time for speeches is gone. He is has to announce some kind of action.”

Ramos adds that, in terms of the Univision audience, Obama wisely scheduled the speech on a day in which the World Cup wasn’t being played. “Believe me, it’s not just chance,” he said.

Finally, there’s the pure political calculus. Immigration legislation is usually considered in terms of its negative consequences—as in, how many conservatives will we anger today? But recent polls, from California, Colorado, and Texas, found Latino voters abandoning Republicans en masse because of their support for the Arizona law. So maybe the White House figures that firing up the Latino base with a speech will compensate for further annoying the right-wing, Tea Party crowd.

Of course, Obama talking about immigration and the Senate doing something are two different things. These days, the fate of any law rests with finding Republican senators who might break a threatened filibuster. Bill Burton said Obama wouldn’t offer a legislative timeline Thursday, and no one associated with immigration reform thought Obama’s words alone could move two Republicans. “I don’t think anyone sees the crack for that window opening in the very short term,” said Fitz.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at [email protected]