Obama's Next Battle

If you thought health care was a brawl, wait until Obama tackles immigration next year. Bryan Curtis talks to the opposition forces about what they have in store.

Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Barack Obama is on the verge of winning health-care reform, a battle that sent his approval ratings plummeting and emboldened his enemies. If you thought that was difficult, wait till January. That’s when Obama says he will tackle immigration, and if there’s a man who seems destined to stand at the center of the opposition, it’s Roy Beck. Beck runs Numbers USA, the “immigration-reduction organization” that raises millions of dollars, sends out blistering emails, and pesters Congress. In 2007, it was Beck’s half-million-strong “citizen army” that helped derail the comprehensive immigration reform championed by George W. Bush, legislation that Obama has promised to resurrect in January. Beck was a regular pontificator on Lou Dobbs’s CNN show.

In other words, Beck’s invitation to the Obama White House will arrive only shortly before the Salahis’. Yet when asked to grade Obama’s immigration policy so far, Beck has a surprising answer. “His first year, as far as I’m concerned, is far, far better than any of the first six years of Bush,” Beck says.

Obama’s first year in office, said one famous critic of immigration reform, “is far, far better than any of the first six years of Bush.”

He adds, “We escaped the Bush years by the skin of our teeth. That was eight years of pure hell for us, because we were just on the edge of losing.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, was one of Beck’s allies in the 2007 immigration wars. And yet in an interview, Krikorian, too, seems oddly sanguine about the dawning of the Obama era. Compared to John McCain, Krikorian says, Obama “is pretty good. Or, at least, not bad.”

“The amnesty side would have been way better off with McCain in the White House,” Krikorian adds.

What’s happened? Well, it’s not as if Beck and Krikorian have fallen head over heels in love. They point out that Obama wants to start a path to citizenship for some of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, a goal they bitterly oppose. But Beck and Krikorian’s newfound cheerfulness is worth studying as Obama takes a poke at America’s most explosive political issue. Take a closer look at immigration and you realize that since the waning days of the Bush administration, immigration policy has become amazingly one-sided. This has continued even under a liberal president. It’s no wonder Beck and Krikorian are smiling.

Immigration policy typically consists of some combination of enforcement (the tough-guy approach) and amnesty (the nice-guy approach). After George W. Bush and his allies failed to pass immigration reform in 2007, they realized the country had little appetite for the nice-guy approach, so they shifted into full-blown tough-guy mode. “Paths to citizenship” were out. “Secure borders” were in. The thinking was that if you showed you could enforce the laws, then you might build enough credibility with the Senate and the public to try the nice-guy approach again. Then-Sen. Obama, who sided with Bush on comprehensive reform, was one of these newly converted tough guys: He voted in favor of building the Mexican border fence in 2006.

To the surprise of some liberals, in the eleven months he has been president Obama has continued to fashion himself as a tough guy. “We’ve seen a consistent trajectory over the last few years of the Bush administration and the first year of the Obama administration, particularly on enforcement issues,” says Edward Alden, an immigration expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. What Obama’s immigration policy mostly consists of is deporting illegal aliens, punishing the companies who employ them, and securing the border. What it doesn’t consist of is much if any work on legal immigration or temporary-worker permits like H-1B visas. This is, of course, just the balance that Beck and Krikorian prefer.

Indeed, some of Obama’s moves have thrilled the immigration warriors. In July, Obama pushed forward with a rule, first proposed during the Bush administration but never implemented. The rule would make E-Verify software, which checks whether an employee is authorized to work in the United States, mandatory for 170,000 government contractors. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) hailed Obama’s move as “a first step toward meeting the public’s expectations.”

Obama, as you would expect, is a more nuanced tough guy than Bush. Obama trashed a Social Security “no match” program that was more onerous than E-Verify; he softened policy for immigrants who apply for political asylum. In his final years in office, part of Bush’s tough-guy act was sending immigration agents on spectacular raids into the worksites of companies suspected of employing illegal aliens, resulting in hundreds of arrests and mass deportations. Obama has directed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to quietly audit these companies instead, then order the company to fire the undocumented workers. The immigrants lose their jobs, but they’re not deported en masse, and families aren’t separated as easily.

But what Obama’s doing—and why Beck and Krikorian are so merry—is still a version of the tough-guy act. Let’s say Obama and his allies fail to pass comprehensive immigration reform next year. Then what they’ve created is a tough-guy regime that could last forever. “If there is not legislation next year, and if it does wait for a year or two longer, it will create more pain,” says Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under Bill Clinton. “But I don’t see that they really have a choice.”

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The way to change the tough guy/nice guy balance would be to somehow push comprehensive reform across the finish line. But none of the anti-immigrant groups are particularly worried about that, either. They point to the brawls the Democrats are facing on health-care reform this year and figure that, with a sour economy and the looming 2010 elections, next year conservative Democrats will be even harder to woo. Mark Krikorian notes a change in Senate leadership. The bipartisan team of Ted Kennedy and John McCain, which spearheaded the earlier reform push, was treated by these anti-immigration groups as formidable opponents. Kennedy has died and McCain has sidelined himself—he does most of his legislative work from TV green rooms these days—so now the mantle falls to Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham, whom Krikorian says he doesn’t lose as much sleep over.

Finally, these groups pose the question that is also on the minds of Latino groups: Does Obama have the will to push through a bill? Bush and McCain, after all, were border politicians who placed immigration reform near the top of their agendas. In an interview, Roy Beck allowed that Obama may be perfectly sincere about immigration reform but said he thought his passion for it was far less than, say, health-care reform. “That’s not where we’re putting our energy and our money,” Beck says of fighting a reform bill. “We don’t regard it as being that serious of a threat.”

If you’re versed in Washington repartee, you’ll recognize that as a pretty surprising admission against interest. Just as an outfit like Greenpeace must claim the environment is in mortal danger, just as Planned Parenthood must argue that a woman’s right to choose is imperiled, immigration groups have a marked interest in saying amnesty is around the corner. Crisis is a source of press attention, and, of course, donations. “It’s harder to raise money on it,” Beck says of his new cheerfulness. “If your members don’t think you’ve got an amnesty threat right in front of you, they don’t have to give you money just as fast.”

He pauses and chuckles. “There could be a reason for me not to say this.”

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.