Immigration reform is dead.
The White House knows it. Capitol Hill knows it. And deep down in their hearts, even those advocating for legislation that would provide illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship know it.
Yet there was President Obama on the southern border Tuesday, declaring that reform is one of the “big things” America can do.
The truth is, no matter how results-oriented Obama might be, he doesn’t have to pass immigration reform to win the Hispanic vote in 2012, and with it another four years in office. He just has to look like he’s trying, and get Republicans to take the bait and pick a fight.
In 2006, then-President George W. Bush made a serious run at reform, and it almost killed the Republican Party.
The nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc — hardly a monolithic group — was given a choice between the compassionate pro-amnesty Democrats who are at odds with Hispanics on social issues and a GOP that seemed to be led by anti-immigrant rants from Tom Tancredo despite cries for solutions from Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Republicans never really recovered on the issue, and the White House knows it.
McCain, who lost the presidential election to Obama and then went to the right on immigration to win another Senate term, makes a great Exhibit A.
White House officials have emphatically denied that Obama is merely playing politics on immigration, even though the administration has yet to offer any legislation or hardcore engagement on the issue.
Instead, Obama has held a series of meetings with Hispanic leaders, casting them as aimed at pressuring Congress to do something.
A Republican participant in one of the meetings said Obama is only “serious about appearing to be serious on the issue.”
“I sense that he is in deep [expletive] with the Hispanic community, which is a necessary base,” the Republican said. “The evidence against him would lead to a conviction. He has not done squat on this issue.”
So the president will make a big speech and hold numerous events to show how serious he is about getting something done on an issue where nothing will get done.
Republican strategists say that is politics at its most cynical, but that it will probably work.
“This approach has worked before,” said GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez. “It has become a campaign tactic rather than a legislative approach to solve a problem.”
Hispanic voters have matured as a bloc, Sanchez said, and they know when they are being used.
To make matters worse for Obama, Democrats and pro-reform groups have all but given up on the president, accusing him of not engaging enough or not using executive orders to right some of the wrongs.
Democrats like Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.) have signaled that they have run out of patience with Obama, and are warning that it is not enough for the president to pay lip service to the issue.
Gutierrez has all but given up on a legislative solution, and is pressing Obama to do more with executive orders. The congressman told The Hill on Tuesday that it is no longer enough for Obama to accuse Republicans of not coming to the table.
“If it’s to show the community where the obstacle exists, the community already knows this,” Gutierrez said.
Despite the growing chorus of anger toward Obama from both sides of the aisle, the president is in good shape on the issue because he looks like he’s trying, and the opposition will shoot itself in the foot if it engages.
Even Gutierrez acknowledges that the politics make sense for Obama, saying he doesn’t “begrudge” the president’s immigration photo-ops with “Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty.” Obama recently invited two of the Hispanic stars of those shows to a White House meeting on immigration.
The Republican participant in one of Obama’s meetings acknowledged that for Obama to be successful, the GOP need only be predictable in going apoplectic over the prospect of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Republican strategists see the political dangers of Obama appearing to take the lead on the issue, and they are secretly terrified that the new Tea Party GOP will be even more vitriolic in its opposition to reform than in 2006.
“I think as Republicans we need a position on this that is other than the Tancredo position — ‘Send ’em all back and to hell with them all,’ ” said one Republican.
But it is unlikely that the serious GOP 2012 candidates are going to go in search of another divisive issue that could enrage the Tea Partiers.
That leaves the Republican Party at best silent on the issue and at worst perceived as racist and anti-Hispanic.
And it leaves Obama as the compassionate, results-oriented president who will get points for the effort while Hispanic voters scratch their heads and wonder why the Republican Party is so hell-bent on alienating them.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill.