Thursday, September 27, 2007

ImmigrationProf Blog interview with Obama

ImmigrationProf Blog has posted (pdf) Obama’s answers to questions on immigration. The three co-bloggers issued a disclaimer that they have all served as members of an Immigration Policy Group for the Obama campaign, but played no role in formulating the responses.

If these immigration experts have decided to throw their lot in with Obama—which I don’t know for certain—I can’t blame them. I think he is the frontrunner with the greatest likelihood of advancing immigration policy in a productive direction.

Clinton lost me in 2002 when she voted for war. She’s not shown much interest in substantively improving her foreign policy positions since then. I can’t remember any big pronouncements she’s made on immigration—I think she is trying to avoid the issue as much as possible. Edwards so far has not impressed me with his immigration or foreign policy acumen.

Obama’s weakest point is his vote for the border wall last year. I’ve not seen him advance a good explanation for that decision. In response to a question on this topic, Obama dodges and weaves:

Deaths on the Border

In recent years, thousands of migrants have died seeking to enter the United States. Many knowledgeable observers blame the increased enforcement measures along the U.S./Mexico border over the last 15+ years for making the crossing a life-or-death proposition. Such measures have diverted immigrants away from large border cities and into remote and desolate deserts where migrants are more likely to die. What would you do to reduce the deaths along the U.S./Mexico border? Why did you vote for the Secure Fence Act in 2006, which allowed for the extension of the border fence along the U.S./Mexico border that, according to many commentators, will do little to deter undocumented immigrants while, at the same time, increase the chances that they will die during their journey?

My father came to this country from a small village in Africa because he was looking for opportunity. So when I see people who are coming across these borders, whether legally or illegally, I know that the motivation is trying to create a better life for their children and their grandchildren. That's why in the state legislature and in the U.S. Senate, I championed efforts to make sure that we could incorporate and bring people into the political process and to have access to the resources that would give them a better life. I was one of the leaders, along with several other senators, in passing comprehensive immigration reform the year before last out of the Senate and was extremely disappointed to see the House fail to act.

I agree that more fencing alone is not the answer to our immigration challenge. The Secure Fence Act sent the message that Mexico is not our friend and that immigration can be solved through enforcement alone – both points with which I strongly disagree. But I believe restoring order in the border region is necessary to winning the American people’s support for full reform. It must be done as one package, but getting the border under control will have to be part of a comprehensive solution for both practical and political reasons. I can commit to you that I will support additional fencing only where it can help discourage illegal entry and dangerous crossings over desert terrain. And I will only support additional fencing in coordination and cooperation with local communities.

I would prefer to use more manned patrols and better technology to deter illegal entry, but a large majority of Congress has agreed that some new fencing should be part of a solution. Additional fencing on the border is not a comprehensive solution, but it sometimes helps deter people from taking the risk of entering illegally. Protecting our borders is important, but it is just one step in the overall process of reforming our nation’s immigration laws.

I like the fact that Obama emphasizes his immigrant roots, if he were elected president, I think his father’s experience would shape his immigration policies in positive ways. But otherwise, this response is inadequate.

He says, “I can commit to you that I will support additional fencing only where it can help discourage illegal entry and dangerous crossings over desert terrain.” But the problem is that fences are being constructed at the safest crossing points, so immigrants are pushed out into remote and dangerous areas. Unless Obama is proposing to turn the entire border fence policy on its head by building fences where nobody crosses and leaving the border towns open, I suspect he knows these words are empty.

Alternatively, Obama knows that what he is describing is impossible and this is his way of saying he will not support additional fencing. Under that interpretation, his next statement makes more sense: I will only support additional fencing in coordination and cooperation with local communities.” Since border communities generally oppose fencing, this could mean Obama won’t support more walls.

But it’s a little late in the day to talk about “additional fencing” when you’ve already voted to authorize 700 miles of fence. Apparently, the CW is that politically, supporting the border wall is a no-brainer. This perception must change, and the change can start with Obama’s Latino constituents in Illinois. While he’s on the national stage now, Illinoisans can speak to his strengths and weaknesses in a way others can’t, and they should take advantage of this to push him to repudiate his vote. In the same way that Clinton has been bleeding credibility with progressives by refusing to revisit her support for the Iraq War in any significant way, Obama should be pushed to revisit his vote for the wall.

Obama says, “a large majority of Congress has agreed that some new fencing should be part of a solution.” It would have been a smaller majority if the junior Senator from Illinois had not joined it, especially as a candidate for president who can act as an opinion leader in a way others can’t. He knows this well from his experience opposing the “large majority of Congress” that supported the Iraq blunder, and he knows the political benefits that being an early opinion leader can bring.

How would the Obama administration have dealt with the case of Elvira Arrellano, the undocumented immigrant with a U.S. citizen son who sought refuge in a church for a year to avoid deportation and, upon leaving her sanctuary, was arrested and deported to Mexico? Arellano’s U.S. citizen son remains in the United States.

I’ve met with Elvira Arellano and her son, and I understand the challenges that they and millions of other undocumented immigrants face. Although I do not condone Ms. Arellano’s defiance of the law, her plight is representative of a broken immigration system. We need comprehensive immigration reform that creates a system that is fair, consistent, compassionate, and emphasizes both maintaining the rule of law and the security of our borders while working to keep families together. I will not stop pushing Congress to pass comprehensive reform this year.

Elvira Arellano represents a vulnerability for restrictionists as Cindy Sheehan did for war supporters. Given the relative paucity in the media of antiwar voices among soldiers and their families before the summer of 2005, Cindy Sheehan’s position as the mother of a fallen soldier seemed at first unassailable to antiwar progressives. That is why she was the focus of such strenuous attacks by the right—she had to be discredited before she drained any more public support for a failing war. Similarly, Arellano represents the consequences to children and families of the damage caused by U.S. immigration policies. Arellano’s status as a single mother who took refuge in a church was enough to keep ICE at bay for an entire year—she was only captured and deported once she left the sanctuary. Her plight could especially have an impact on women’s opinions on immigration if her public image is not speedily tarnished—hence, the negative press from Fox and the restrictionist websites.

I like Obama’s statement on Arellano, and I’m glad he’s not ashamed to have met with her. I disagree with Dan Kowalski; I think Arellano does deserve support. I don’t want to see her in the same position as Cindy Sheehan found herself, where liberals bought into the conservative narrative and began discounting Sheehan’s experience and undermining from the left her effectiveness in the national discussion.

Obama’s response to a question about how he would reform the broken immigration courts was less than satisfactory, mostly because it was less than 25 words:

Improving the quality of the decisions of the immigration courts and the BIA is part of comprehensive reform and I will fight for it.

The most generous interpretation is that he is not informed about this issue enough to have an opinion at this point.

Obama expresses support for the DREAM Act and points out that he introduced the Citizenship Promotion Act to reduce application fees for citizenship and promote efforts to integrate immigrants into American life. This is a good way to address persistent (though unfounded) complaints that today’s immigrants just ain’t like they used to be in terms of learning English and integrating into American society.

Overall, I agree with Kowalski that Obama’s positions need a lot of refining, and at some point, the details should be fleshed out. But as a general matter, the candidates are reluctant on many issues to commit to details which may come back to bite them in the general election. Obama at least is reaching out to the immigrant community by participating in this interview, his border wall vote notwithstanding.

If he is successful in the primaries, pressure will be on him to repudiate some of the more immigrant-friendly positions he is taking now. The real test will be how he responds to that.

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