Why an Immigration Speech Now?

President Obama's speech today on immigration has a limited shelf life. It is mainly aimed at the advocacy community and is mostly about signs, signals, and sympathy. Obama wants immigration reform activists to know that Republicans are responsible for blocking progress, not him. Republicans, he believes, have hijacked the debate and are divisive forces sprinting away with the issue. Congress won't move on immigration; neither side wants a tough vote, but both sides seem to relish the base-rousing opportunity that hooting about immigration always brings. Not that it will be any easier after the midterms. 

"Perhaps we can spark something that will enable us to do it this year," a senior administration official told me, almost wistfully. It's a hard issue to message. Americans don't seem to know what they want, which usually means they want the government to fix it. They hear stories about record numbers of kidnappings and the irrepressible Mexican drug trade. Economic competition concerns are only heightened during a recession, and the mood of the nation is not terribly generous at the moment. 

The conventional wisdom holds that Republicans will lose more in the long-term by fundamentally and forever alienating Hispanics, and that's probably true. But the short-term horizon now includes a chance to take over Congress, and the official GOP line is much less coarse than it was: close the borders, establish a temporary worker program, increase enforcement crackdowns on employment of illegal immigrants; avoid amnesty. Put the Democrats on defense -- make them justify or try to explain how their earned legalizaton initiatives aren't some form of amnesty. 

Democrats have been much less successful convincing 2010 voters that Republicans are meanies who have no real plan to handle the millions of undocumented aliens in the country. (The latter point is true.) Democrats used to have the trademark on comprehensive immigration reform. Even though Republicans aren't dealing with the people already here, they've managed to steal the term without much pushback.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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