Having hit his stride in the polls, Barack Obama seems to clutch the teleprompter less tightly these days. He looked relaxed as he addressed the subject of "immigration reform" on Tuesday and even attempted a semi-cavalier joke at the expense of those concerned about America's porous borders. "Maybe they'll need a moat," he said, dismissing their calls for more border security. "Maybe they want alligators in the moat."
George W. Bush had broached the idea of de facto amnesty shortly before 9/11, then the subject vanished. A joke about alligators in moats wouldn't have been welcome in the days after Osama bin Laden hit the country. But now that he is gone, Obama can make one and try his hand at the issue of illegal immigration.
In his speech in El Paso, he downplayed concerns about border insecurity while insisting that he has responded to them effectively: "the truth is the measures we've put in place are getting results. Over the past two and a half years, we've seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency, 64 percent more weapons than ever before. And even as we have stepped up patrols, apprehensions along the border have been cut by nearly 40 percent from two years ago. That means far fewer people are attempting to cross the border illegally."
Would he have done any of this on his own without the political backlash to open borders? No, but he sounds at times as if he did. He followed, not led, on the issue, yet says those who saw a problem on the borders where he didn't are still crying wolf.
The crowd to whom he was appealing with his moat joke found his listing of border security accomplishments beside the point. As he began to say that he had complied with requests to build a fence, an audience member shouted, "Tear it down." As he referenced those calling for more measures, another audience member shouted, "They're racist."
Later in the speech, Obama invited this audience to "add your voices to this debate" and "sign up to help at whitehouse.gov."
Obama presents himself as a forthright leader of "immigration reform" even as he avoids defining reform in open terms. Still having to follow the public a bit, he has to couch his calls for what amounts to selective amnesty between vaguely reassuring lines about the importance of enforcing the law and the "responsibility" that illegal immigrants bear. This sounds like he wants current laws enforced, but he doesn't, at least not consistently. He considers these laws unjust and wants them discarded. That's what is meant by reform.
Another rhetorical sleight of hand in the speech was to mix the issue of illegal immigration into a safer enthusiasm for America as a nation of immigrants. To oppose "reform" that accommodates illegal immigration is not to deny the benefits of legal immigration. But Obama tries to leave that implication.
"[T]he flow of immigrants has helped make this country stronger and more prosperous. We can point to the genius of Einstein, the designs of I.M. Pei, the stories of Isaac Asimov, the entire industries that were forged by Andrew Carnegie," he said, as if to place the flow of illegal immigrants on the same plane.
One would think a speech in El Paso might have honed in on the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico, but Obama seemed more interested in talking about immigrants in the high-tech industry, as if the issue under discussion was whether or not to let geniuses from India and Asian countries work at Google.
"We should make it easier for the best and the brightest to not only stay here, but also to start businesses and create jobs here. In recent years, a full 25 percent of high-tech startups in the U.S. were founded by immigrants," he said. "That led to 200,000 jobs here in America. I'm glad those jobs are here. I want to see more of them created in this country. We need to provide them the chance."
Opposition to "comprehensive immigration reform" is hardly stuck on that issue, but it is easier for Obama to push on open doors like that one than to talk about the real problems of an open border.