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Obama playing games with immigration

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • Ruben Navarrette reacts to Obama's immigration speech in El Paso
  • He says Obama has given little attention to the issue and has hindered reform in past
  • He says Obama broke promise to Latino voters to make immigration reform a top priority
  • Navarrette: "Enough gamesmanship, Mr. President; how about some leadership?"

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- In August 2005, as part of a public arts project, David Smith -- aka "The Human Cannonball" -- was fired out of a cannon across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego. He was caught in a net 150 feet from the border, and he had his passport in hand just in case he had to show it to the U.S. Border Patrol.

For several years, that was considered the best show ever to visit the border. Not anymore.

This week, President Obama -- who has already declared that he is running for re-election -- kicked off his 2012 Latino outreach effort by traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas, and delivering a speech on immigration.

This wasn't easy. Finding the border can be tricky when it is your first visit in the 26 months since becoming president.

Besides, immigration isn't Obama's favorite topic. You remember that subject in high school that you hated, because, well, you had no interest in it and so you weren't good at it?

For Barack Obama, that subject is immigration. He's terrible at it. He doesn't seem to understand it. And he doesn't appear to care about it. So he settles for using it as a political tool.

There is a sizable community of immigrants -- legal and illegal -- in Illinois. Yet, during his stint in the state Senate, Obama demonstrated little interest in the issue and proposed no bills specifically aimed at immigrants.

When Obama ascended to the U.S. Senate, he voted for a so-called "poison pill" amendment to a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would "sunset" a proposed guest worker program after five years. All of this was to please organized labor, but it doomed the compromise.

After becoming president, Obama broke his promise to Latino voters to make immigration reform a top priority and address it early in his administration. Then he added injury to insult by racking up a record number of deportations -- nearly 800,000 in his first two years in office. The Department of Homeland Security deports about 1,000 people a day.

We know this because, in a futile attempt to convince Obama's critics that he's tough on border security, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano brags about those figures in speeches and before Congress like a proud fisherman posing for a photo while holding the catch of the day.

And how do you get to the point where you're deporting more illegal immigrants than any U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower launched "Operation Wetback" in 1954? You use local police as a force multiplier, letting municipalities enforce immigration law and deliver to you the apprehended immigrants -- while you're suing the state of Arizona for doing the same thing.

All of which brings us to that speech on the border. This would have been a good opportunity to apologize for his administration's excesses, and maybe announce a new policy that -- while still tough -- is fairer and more humane.

But that's not Obama's style. He approaches a speech like this as an opportunity to make himself look good and his opponents look bad. Some of the content was terrific; some was farcical. Overall, the president's speech was menudo (Mexican stew). It had a little of everything mixed in.

On the positive side, you had uplifting stories like that of Dr. Jose Hernandez, the son of immigrant farm workers, who grew up picking vegetables in Central California and became an astronaut. There was common sense about how idiotic it is for our country to educate foreign students, then send them home because we make it so difficult for them to stay. There was the heartwarming assurance that people could be proud of their heritage and still love the United States of America.

But, on the negative side, this was a political speech. And so it was full of deceptions and half-truths, finger-pointing and the ducking of responsibility.

We learned that it was Republicans who demanded the building of border fencing. (True, but Obama left out the part about how he voted for it in the Senate.)

We learned that, while in the Senate, Obama helped forge "a bipartisan coalition" to advance immigration reform. (Actually, Obama undermined that coalition when he helped torpedo immigration reform.)

We learned that Republicans killed the DREAM Act. (They didn't. Five Senate Democrats did -- Jon Tester, Max Baucus, Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, and Ben Nelson -- when they bolted from party leaders and voted against cloture.)

We learned that the administration focuses on deporting "criminal aliens." (It's true that -- through initiatives like Secure Communities, a cooperative agreement between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials -- the number of criminal aliens being deported is way up from the previous administration. But even so, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the total number of criminal aliens apprehended is less than 200,000. That still leaves hundreds of thousands of "noncriminal" deportations. In fact, Obama admitted in his remarks that those subject to removal include "families that are just trying to earn a living or bright, eager students or decent people with the best of intentions.")

And finally, we learned that Obama thinks the United States shouldn't be "in the business of separating families." (Guess what? That is exactly the business we're in. The Obama administration, for purely political reasons, separates hundreds of families every day.)

Are we done now? Enough gamesmanship, Mr. President. How about some leadership? You've shown you can get out in front of issues you care about. Try caring more about this one.

President Obama went to the border this week to share his usual campaign message of hope and change. He wound up spreading fertilizer.

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