Is Obama Backing Away From a Sweeping Immigration Legalization Program?

At first glance, President Obama’s speech last month on immigration policy broke no new ground. That’s because the president once again called on Congress to pass a sweeping legalization program for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the US.

For Latinos who’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with Obama over his failure to push comprehensive immigration reform more aggressively, the president’s words were reassuring.

But a closer reading of Obama’s speech suggests that his position on legalization may be shifting, only he’s not quite ready, with the mid-term elections hanging in the balance, and Latino support critical to the outcome, to articulate that shift.

But it’s there, unmistakably.
The tip-off is contained in the precise language Obama uses to characterize the “extremes” that he now believes US immigration policy should avoid.

At one extreme, according to Obama, is “mass deportation,” the view that our policy should simply punish illegal border crossers or visa-overstayers by simply forcing them out of the country.

That’s more or less the current view of GOP conservatives, though, officially they say only that they want to see expanded enforcement “first,” before any legalization is contemplated.

In fact, the GOP far right doesn’t believe in legalization – not one bit. It’s hoping that the tightening enforcement noose will lead many illegals to give up and return home.

That Obama’s opposed to “mass deportation” is hardly news. Though his administration, in deference to the right, and to bolster its own case for legalization, has already tightened the enforcement noose considerably – indeed, to a point that many pro-immigration advocates now find troubling. More illegal aliens are being deported than ever before.

Even worse, most of the deported are aliens with clean criminal records – or only minor offenders at worst – people who would likely qualify for a legalization program, were one already in place. But one isn’t, because Congress remains completely deadlocked on the issue.
Which brings us to the second of Obama’s two policy extremes – “mass amnesty.” Obama says we should avoid a policy of “mass amnesty” as strongly as a we oppose a policy of “mass deportation.”

But isn’t that exactly what a sweeping legalization program amounts to, in fact? The current version of amnesty in dispute may contain a series of procedural hoops for undocumented immigrants to jump through, including a requirement that they pay a fine (possibly, even a hefty one), learn English, and maintain a clean criminal record.

But once they do that, every single illegal alien currently residing in the U.S. – all 11 million – would qualify for a green card. And the overwhelming majority would surely get one. So how is that any less of a “mass” amnesty?

It’s not, and there’s the tip off. For political purposes, Obama’s still endorsing a mass legalization program. But in the same breath – or several paragraphs apart in the same speech – he appears to be setting the stage for – or leaving the door open to – something else.

Or rather, something “less.” Not a “mass” amnesty, perhaps, but a “partial” one. One in which some illegal aliens would get green cards, but others, as a matter of policy, might not.

Sound far-fetched? Not at all. In 1986, when Congress last passed a so-called “general” amnesty it set pre-conditions on how many aliens could actually qualify. For example, anyone who had entered the country after 1982 – in other words anyone who’d only been in the country 4 years or less – was deemed ineligible from the outset.

That same residency requirement – or even a tougher one – could easily be applied to the current illegal alien population. If it were, far less than 11 million illegal aliens would be eligible for green cards.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 40% of the current illegal alien population has been in the US only 5 years or less, so that’s some indication of the magnitude involved. Instead of 11 million, only 6.5
million or so might be legalized.

In fact, in 2006, the last time comprehensive reform actually passed the Senate, Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) – whose been a close political ally of Obama’s in the past, and remains one – offered a compromise bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants with 5-plus years of residency to get a green card, while leaving open the possibility that most of the others might not be eligible at all – or at best, might be granted temporary visas as “guest workers.”

For a variety of reasons, the guest worker compromise is less likely now. For one thing, Obama’s labor allies oppose it because guest workers can depress domestic wages. But so do GOP conservatives, who are afraid that the guest workers will never leave.

Some version of the guest worker concept might still be resurrected if the GOP regains control of Congress. But with the far-right ascendant, it’s just as likely that it won’t be. Which means that those who aren’t long-stayers in the illegal alien population – and are denied legalization outright – won’t have a fall-back option. They’ll simply become subject to deportation, as the enforcement system, at Obama’s urging, continues to tighten.

Obama’s emerging paradigm, then, seems to contradict his oft-stated spport for a mass legalization program. Which means there appears to be much more to Obama’s recent speech than many commentators have noticed.

In quintessential Obama fashion, the President seems to be redefining the terms of debate to make it possible to straddle the current positions in conflict, which, the President may well have concluded, are irreconcilable.

And, in fact, it’s not just Obama. A growing number of GOP conservatives – everyone from newly-elected Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin – are quietly searching for a formula that will allow them to re-position the GOP as a party of “inclusion” — and not just “no” — on immigration.

They are increasingly concerned that the far-right’s “nativist” politics are jeopardizing the GOP’s outreach to moderate Latinos whose disenchantment with Obama on other issues appears to be growing. Palin has even let slip that some kind of legalization program would have to be part of the GOP’s re-thinking.

In fact, a good dozen or so GOP Senators are already on record supporting a legalization program – but given the GOP’s internal politics, supporting a “mass amnesty” is simply out of the question.

But a “partial” legalization could be a different matter, depending on how its “spun.” Under pressure from the right, the GOP might be forced to limit the scope of any legalization still further, allowing even fewer green cards, subject to additional deportations.

But once “mass” amnesty is off the table, we’d at least be arguing over the numbers – and not the basic principle.

Could it be, then, that Obama is already beginning to reposition the Democrats to push an unprecedented bipartisan compromise on legalization to ensure that an immigration reform bill is finally passed, and passed at his behest?

Don’t expect anyone to admit as much. It’s still an election season, and both sides in the debate have a stake in the current partisan warfare. But once the mid-terms are held, and the dust settles, with the GOP almost certainly in a much stronger position, the groundwork now being laid may well bear fruit.

And if it does, Obama might end up doing for immigration reform what Bill Clinton did for welfare reform at a similar critical turning point midway through his first term: De-“liberalize” Democratic policy thinking on a critical national issue to recapture the political center and, like Clinton, consolidate his bealeaguered presidency.

“The era of big government is over,” Clinton declared upon signing his landmark welfare rerform bill. After November, the era of “mass amnesty” may well be over, too.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at






Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at