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Can Obama close divide on immigration?

By Tamar Jacoby, Special to CNN
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Obama pushes lawmakers on immigration
  • Tamar Jacoby: Polls show people favor immigration reform, yet it still divides America
  • She says Arizona law symbol of polarization: Enforcement more popular, but many repelled
  • She says Obama speech should back enforcement and resist urge to sue Arizona
  • Jacoby: If Obama can't create consensus, immigration reform will remain out of reach

Editor's note: Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners advocating immigration reform.

Washington (CNN) -- As President Obama prepares the high-stakes speech he's scheduled to give Thursday on immigration, I hope he'll keep in mind the paradox of immigration politics.

The polling is consistent. Survey after survey shows the overwhelming majority of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform.

A national poll conducted in May by Lake Research Partners and Public Opinion Strategies found 84 percent in favor of legislation that strengthens enforcement on the border and in the workplace and puts illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.

A few weeks earlier, a Hart Research survey of voters in four "moderate-conservative" states, Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri and Ohio, found that 67 percent supported a similar overhaul.

In between, another survey by Public Opinion Strategies conducted for my own organization found that even among voters who consider legalization of illegal immigrants to be "amnesty," 74 percent support including it in a reform package.

Despite these stunning numbers, no one would claim the nation is anywhere near consensus on immigration.

Americans are deeply divided on Arizona's tough new enforcement measure, SB 1070, with roughly 60 percent of the country in favor and many of the rest denouncing it as thinly veiled bigotry.

For most of the public, the primary appeal of comprehensive reform is the provisions calling for tougher, more effective enforcement. But many immigrants-rights advocates are skeptical of enforcement and are pushing back hard against the Obama administration as it struggles to prove it's serious about implementing the law.

Certainly, there's no consensus in Congress, where lawmakers tried and failed again this year (the fifth in a row) to pass a comprehensive reform measure.

This is hardly a new divide, but it has grown much worse since passage of the Arizona law. Why? The debate about SB 1070 is about much more than the bill. It's about what's at stake when we talk about immigration.

For those who support SB 1070, the issues are border security, crime and the rule of law. For those who oppose it, what hangs in the balance are civil rights and the federal government's obligation to protect them.

Opponents believe that anyone who supports the legislation is condoning bigotry and human rights abuses. But supporters, too, feel they're defending an absolute -- the safety of their neighborhoods and the integrity of the law. Many are enraged by a movement they see jumping to play the race card against them just because they think illegal immigrants have broken the law.

The result: an all-or-nothing, good-vs.-evil debate that allows no room for conversation, let alone compromise. It's a stalemate that looks increasingly like the stalemates on abortion and creationism -- an entrenched standoff between two camps sure they're right and sure the other is endangering the nation.

The challenge for Obama: Give a speech that speaks to both sides and starts in even some small way to bridge the gaping divide.

Here are four principles from which he might start:

1 -- Don't play politics or blame game.

He should resist the temptation to play politics, pander to Latino voters or blame Republicans. Few Republicans in Congress would vote for comprehensive reform if it were introduced between now and November. But neither would many Democrats -- probably not nearly enough to pass a bill.

2 -- Promote America's interests.

He should make the case for reform in terms that all Americans can support, based on America's interests, not rights or compassion, important as they may be to advocates.

3 -- Get tough.

He should stand up for tougher, more competent, more convincing enforcement and maybe even what lawmakers call an enforcement "trigger," requiring that the immigration service meet certain enforcement benchmarks before other provisions of a reform package kick in.

4 -- Don't sue Arizona.

Perhaps most important and hardest for the president: Resist the temptation to sue Arizona to block implementation of SB 1070. Appealing as that may seem, arguably even justified on constitutional grounds, it will only fan the flames of the debate and inject immigration into midterm campaigns from coast to coast. It will stir up Tea Party activists, a group till now not particularly engaged on immigration but sure to take up arms against a federal push to jam a state legislature. And it will alienate key lawmakers, from Arizona and elsewhere, without whose help it will be impossible to fix immigration.

Can the president pull this off? Can he pull the nation back from the brink?

One thing is certain: If he can't -- if Thursday and in the weeks ahead he can't start to help the two opposing camps hear and speak to each other -- there can be no hope of passing comprehensive reform.

Whether now or next year in the new Congress, it's going to take Democrats and Republicans. Neither party alone can pull it off, and a bill opposed by 60 percent of the public won't stand a chance. Any compromise will have to work for hawks and doves, both supporters and opponents of SB 1070. And only the White House can referee the debate. Only the White House can play honest broker and build the consensus that's needed to pass a balanced, bipartisan overhaul.

The problem is political pressures are pushing Obama in exactly the opposite direction -- to play to one faction and blame another, bowing to Latino voters even as he baits Republicans. That may sound smart in an election year, but it's not the way to get to yes.

Can the president resist the temptation? Watch your screen!

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tamar Jacoby.