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Running for the hills on immigration

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr. says President Obama has been disappointing on immigration
  • Obama devoted only 37 words to the issue in State of the Union address, Navarrette says
  • Columnist says immigration reform won't happen this year -- and many advocates accept that
  • Elected officials need to take the issue on, Navarrette says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Thirty-seven words. In this week's State of the Union address -- which was more than 7,000 words long and lasted longer than an hour -- all President Obama devoted to the issue of immigration reform was 37 measly words.

Here they are: "And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system -- to secure our borders, enforce our laws and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation."

It's disappointing that Obama didn't spend more time on this pressing issue -- but not surprising. Even though, elsewhere in the speech, Obama reminded Democrats in Congress that "the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills," this White House spent the first year in office running for the hills on immigration reform.

In fact, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once referred to the issue as the real "third rail" of American politics. You touch it, you die.

Every immigration reform advocate in the country -- including many Latinos -- should be disappointed in Obama. Many of them bought the fairy tale that a Democratic president would magically be more committed to immigration reform than a Republican one. And they expected Obama to make good on the promise he made, while addressing the annual meeting of the National Council of La Raza in July 2008 as a candidate, to treat comprehensive immigration reform as "a top priority in my first year as president."

That obviously didn't happen. And, regardless of what Obama's defenders say, it wasn't just because the president found other things to do. The truth is that immigration reform was always going to be an especially tough issue for Democrats since it splits the liberal coalition with Latinos on one side and organized labor on the other.

While many unions support giving illegal immigrants a shot at legal status, they balk at another element in the mix: guest workers, which organized labor claims would undermine U.S. workers who would -- even as we speak -- be happily doing the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs if foreign workers hadn't beaten them to it.

As for what Obama said in his speech, you'll notice that he was careful not to use hot-button phrases: "comprehensive immigration reform," "guest workers," "earned legalization." He was just as careful to emphasize positive phrases: "enforce our laws," "contribute to our economy," "enrich our nation."

Oh brother. Those 37 words must have been focus-grouped 100 times.

Next, Obama also played it safe by basically selling the rhetorical equivalent of mom, puppies and apple pie. By limiting his immigration remarks to feel-good generalities, the president decreased the likelihood of being attacked by opponents.

How does someone oppose "fixing our broken immigration system" or a call to "secure our borders"?

And finally, in going to bat for "everyone who plays by the rules," Obama can't very well be talking about illegal immigrants since they didn't play the rules to get here, stay here or work here. In fact, they are, by their very nature, rule breakers.

So either Obama is telegraphing that he won't be aggressively pursuing a path to earned legalization for illegal immigrants and will instead focus on the low-hanging fruit of enforcement only, or he is redefining what it means to "play by the rules," and what he means is that he aims to help those illegal immigrants who -- having broken the rules to get here -- might now be willing to adhere to a set of conditions to stay here.

There's a big difference between those two approaches, and only time will tell what the president is prepared to do to -- as he said -- fix a broken system.

Obama had it right the first time when he was campaigning for president. The answer is comprehensive immigration reform. "Enforcement only" won't work because it never does. It's just another way for lawmakers to take the easy way out, and -- as Obama said -- run for the hills.

Our elected officials need to grab the immigration issue whole with a comprehensive approach that includes:

• Guest workers to do jobs Americans won't do at any wage;

• A tamper-proof identification card for all U.S. workers to help employers know who is legally eligible to work;

• New employer sanctions that include stiffer fines and jail time for repeat offenders;

• A condition-laden pathway to earned legalization for illegal immigrants who have been in the United States since before 2005;

• More workplace raids and speedier deportations to deal with those who can't or won't meet those conditions;

• A revamping of the immigration system for legal immigrants so that we put more emphasis on the demands of the labor market and less on family reunification;

• A ban on welfare and other social aid programs for those legalized with the exception of emergency health care;

• And efforts to secure the border, not with walls to nowhere but with better and smarter technology that helps Border Patrol agents stay one step ahead in their ongoing battle of wits with immigrant smugglers.

Mr. President, there is no way to say all that in 37 words.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.