President Obama gave what was billed as an important speech on immigration last week near the border in El Paso, Texas. Unfortunately, it was one of the most demagogic moments in recent presidential history. Nearly everything Obama said was either factually incorrect or deliberately misleading.
Why, 28 months into the Obama presidency, is there now a sudden push to pass “comprehensive” immigration reform? After all, from 2009 to early 2011, Obama had large Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate. Why didn’t he ram through his own immigration bill then, as he did with health care?
The answer, of course, is that about 70 percent of the American people consistently poll against the president’s initiatives on illegal immigration. Obama simply did not want to sign an easily passable bill that would earn him further unpopularity.
But now he has lost the House. A close reelection bid looms. The president is enjoying a sudden bounce in popularity after the killing of Osama bin Laden. He needs to firm up his base of Latino supporters. Presto: Time to blame Republicans for his own past unwillingness to get a bill through his Democratic Congress.
Obama’s demagoguery seemed to work on the crowd in El Paso. His listeners interrupted his speech to answer, “Tear it down,” when he mentioned the border fence. They booed and jeered on cue, “They’re racist,” when he went after Republicans. And they joined Obama, the sudden cheerleader-in-chief, in chanting, “Yes, we can.”
In blaming Republicans, Obama charged that their fears about open borders were groundless, since “The fence is now basically complete.” And to emphasize that claim, he mocked his opponents by saying, “Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they’ll need alligators in the moat.”
That sounds cute. But it is again quite untrue. The fence is most assuredly not “basically complete.” Currently, fewer than 700 miles of the more than 1,900-mile border have any sort of barrier. And less than 5 percent of the border has a secure double-fenced impediment. Even with increased patrols, a recent Government Accountability Office study found that 40 percent of the border is essentially open and unguarded. There are still well over half a million illegal border crossings per year.
In a fit of projection, the president also accused his opponents of politicking the issue for partisan advantage: “We’ve seen a lot of blame and a lot of politics and a lot of ugly rhetoric around immigration.”
That too was a distortion for at least two reasons. First, during the 2010 midterm election, the president himself urged Latinos to “punish” their political “enemies.” That advice sure seemed like “ugly rhetoric.”
And in the El Paso speech, the president rallied his listeners to go lobby for his proposals: “So I’m asking you to add your voices to this debate. You can sign up to help at whitehouse.gov.” Whipping up crowds to log onto his website seems just like “the usual Washington games” that Obama deplored in the speech.
The president also deliberately confused legal and illegal immigration in lamenting the inability of highly skilled immigrants to obtain work visas and citizenship opportunities. But polls show wide support for legal immigration based on skill sets, not just on proximity to the border or family ties.
What the president did not dare reveal was that to let in professionals and business people from around the world, based on their skills and earning potential, might also mean to curtail the influx of those without education and capital — in other words, to discourage the millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico who don’t speak English or have high-school educations, and who often have little means of support, but have apparent political clout.
Even when the president offered some sensible proposals about illegal aliens paying fines, applying formally for citizenship, and learning English, he was still disingenuous. Obama deliberately floated these proposals to his partisan audience without any details of enforcement, since to do so would likely have turned off the cheering crowd.
So how exactly would Obama coerce some 11 million illegal aliens into paying a fine, returning to the immigration line to apply legally, or learning English? By threat of deportation or incarceration?
The vast majority of the American public is not racist or “playing politics” in worrying about out-of-control illegal immigration. The enforcement of existing federal immigration law has become a joke. Drug violence in Mexico is destabilizing an entire country and spilling over the border. Jobs are scarce here, with unemployment still at 9 percent. Many billions of dollars in remittances to Mexico leave the American Southwest, often from illegal aliens who rely on American social services to make up the difference.
These are serious issues that deserve more from a president than reelection pandering at the border and bad jokes about alligators and moats.
—Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.