‘I’m a Strong Believer You Have to Obey the Law’: A look ahead at Obama’s immigration policy

By Mark Krikorian on November 12, 2008

National Review Online

Now that we know who’s going to be in the White House and Congress next year, what are the prospects for immigration?

Despite big Democratic gains in Congress, the results aren’t as bad for the cause of immigration enforcement as a simple partisan approach to the issue might suggest. After all, one of the ways Democrats have been picking up formerly Republican seats over the past few elections has been to nominate immigration hawks like Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana.

Roy Beck of Numbers USA has done a preliminary analysis of House results and finds that there are six incoming pro-amnesty Democrats replacing somewhat anti-amnesty Republicans, though none of the Democrats made immigration a major issue. On the other hand, three other newly elected Democrats ran on very strong pro-enforcement platforms and four others appear to be much more hawkish than the Republicans they’ll replace. In Beck’s words, “The results of this evening have not been a reason for celebrating. But neither have they been a reason for us to put on sackcloth.”

What about the Obama Administration? The president-elect’s instincts on immigration are, of course, just like those of his erstwhile opponent — let the illegals stay, loosen enforcement, increase overall immigration. When he was campaigning in the primaries, he even supported driver’s licenses for illegal aliens, probably never having met anyone in his parochial experience who thought otherwise.

But opposition to licenses for illegals is a 70-plus percent issue with the public. Despite Obama’s promise to Hispanic groups to address amnesty during his first 100 days, stepping into a steaming pile of amnesty would drain vital time and energy, a la Clinton and gays in the military, from things he cares about more, like socializing medicine and lowering sea levels. And whatever candidate Obama said about amnesty before the stock market meltdown, a proposal by President Obama to amnesty millions of illegals during the worst economic situation in decades would be a gift to the Republican minority in Congress.

Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff actually bodes well for immigration. It’s not that he’s a nice guy, like the Josh Lyman character on West Wing that he inspired. As Yuval Levin recently wrote at The Corner, Emanuel is “a vicious graceless partisan: narrow, hectic, unremittingly aggressive, vulgar, and impatient.” But it is precisely this partisanship, combined with an awareness of the visceral public sentiment on immigration, that has led him to counsel caution for his party on the issue. To the chagrin of hard-left activists, Emanuel has said of immigration that "For the American people, and therefore all of us, it's emerged as the third rail of American politics. And anyone who doesn't realize that isn't with the American people.” Last year Emanuel told a Hispanic activist that “there is no way this legislation [“comprehensive immigration reform”] is happening in the Democratic House, in the Democratic Senate, in the Democratic presidency, in the first term.” One lefty activist has described Emanuel’s cautions as “disgusting and immoral,” while another called his stance “cowardly or xenophobic,” and a third described him as a “war-mongering anti-immigrant NAFTA-pusher.” Considering the sources, those are pretty good endorsements!

But that’s all about legislative matters. What about the administrative issues that Obama can address without Congress? There have been major advances in immigration enforcement over the past year or two, finally starting to put a little meat on the bones of the enforcement promises of the 1986 amnesty bill. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff laid out these initiatives in a valedictory speech on the “State of Immigration” last month, describing the E-Verify system that enables employers to identify illegal aliens among new hires, the pending No-Match Rule (to inform employers when they submit employees’ fake or stolen Social Security numbers — you already thought they did that?), the anti-gang effort called Operation Community Shield, border fencing, and more.

Tom Barry, probably the most astute immigration observer on the open-borders left, is afraid that the incoming Obama Administration will be tempted to not pull the plug on all this:



Any retreat from Chertoff's hard-line position on enforcement will be met with an upsurge of angry anti-immigration organizing. And any Chertoff-like proposal for an expanded temporary workers program will likely be opposed, as FAIR signals, as a de facto legalization initiative. As the economy stagnates, active support for immigrant rights and legalization is likely to decline, making yet more difficult for the Obama administration to summon the political will to fight back against the enforcement-first measures that Chertoff and the restrictionists have set in motion.

The Obama administration and the new Democratic Congress will soon face the challenge of addressing the immigration crisis. The path of least resistance may be to accept the “State of Immigration” as shaped and defined by Chertoff and the Republicans. But the bolder path is to stand on reason and principle in backing a new comprehensive reform bill, which meets valid citizen concerns about effective border control and sustainable immigration flows while also ensuring that immigrant workers and their families are treated with justice and fairness.


With unemployment going up and stock values going down, that “bolder path” becomes less likely by the day.

Obama will face two early opportunities to build credibility on immigration or, conversely, to fix himself in the public mind as Obamnesty. As President Bush found to his great consternation, such credibility is a prerequisite to making the case for amnesty — the public simply doesn’t believe promises that enforcement will take place some time in the future.

The first opportunity is his illegal-alien Auntie Zeituni living in Boston. Make that his visa-overstaying, fugitive illegal-alien aunt living on welfare in Boston. At least she was in Boston until the London Times found out about her, using such unfamiliar techniques as reading Obama's memoir and doing a Google search; she fled to relatives in Cleveland since.

Though some paranoids saw the revelation as an October Surprise, it can be turned into a major plus for the president-elect. He's already responded the right way initially; Obama told Katie Couric: “If she is violating laws those laws have to be obeyed. We're a nation of laws. Obviously that doesn't lessen my concern for her, I haven't been able to be in touch with her. But I'm a strong believer you have to obey the law.” While James Taranto of the open-borders Wall Street Journal editorial page describes that statement as “pandering to xenophobes,” for ordinary Americans it strikes just the right balance between empathy for a family member but commitment to the rule of law. The real test will come if she exhausts her appeals and is set to be repatriated to Kenya — if Obama doesn't interfere and acknowledges, however regretfully, the legitimacy of that action, his credibility as the nation's chief immigration enforcement officer will be immensely strengthened.

President Obama’s second test will come in Congress, completely apart from any grand reform plans. The E-Verify system is set to expire in March and needs to be re-authorized. This voluntary system that has proven very effective at deterring or identifying illegal workers and now checks one in eight new hires nationwide. Precisely for that reason, some Democrats, notably Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have tried to kill the program. Candidate Obama, on the other hand, expressed support for it and for the general strategy of holding employers accountable if they hire illegal workers. When this fight resumes in March, the White House will need to take a strong stance in favor of long-term reauthorization of E-Verify to maintain its credibility on enforcement.

Beyond simply reauthorizing E-Verify, the Obama White House would further raise its stock in the eyes of the public by continuing the new policy of requiring all federal contractors to use E-Verify in their hiring, and by working with Rep. Shuler to pass the SAVE Act, which would phase in the system for all employers.

Of course, were President Obama to keep his word and pass these tests, he would have a much freer hand in selling amnesty to the public, having built on Bush’s belated discovery that enforcement has to come before anything else. But that’s a chance we should be willing to take.