May 11, 2011

FOR THE THIRD TIME in as many weeks, President Obama and his top domestic policy advisers hosted a group of prominent Hispanics and immigration experts the other day at the White House. That was followed by a policy speech on immigration reform Tuesday in El Paso. The president’s goal has been twofold: First, and explicitly, it was to reaffirm his support for overhauling the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system, which has produced 11 million undocumented immigrants. Second, and implicitly, it was to galvanize relations with a large and increasingly restless voting bloc whose support was critical to his victory in 2008 and will be again for his prospects in 2012.

The restlessness of Hispanic voters is understandable, if not wholly attributable to Mr. Obama. As a candidate, he promised to press, in his first year in office, for comprehensive immigration reform. But the first year came and went with no movement on immigration. And that was before Mr. Obama lost his Democratic majority, along with much of his influence, in the House of Representatives.

Now, with Republicans ruling the House, chances for a comprehensive immigration bill are nil. Though the president insists he has not given up, Hispanic advocates, celebrities and lawmakers who have visited the White House have come away with the impression that Mr. Obama is stymied by the Republicans.

It is true that with few exceptions, Republicans in Congress remain dead set against any measure that includes eventual citizenship — or, as they would describe it, amnesty — for immigrants here illegally. But it would be cynical for the administration to use GOP obstructionism as justification to throw up its hands, declare the issue dormant and scale back its efforts to what amounts to a get-out-the-Hispanic-vote strategy.

The truth is that the administration has not been inactive on immigration; it has simply trained all its fire on enforcement, perhaps hoping that would soften Republican opposition to an eventual deal that included some provision for assimilating the 11 million immigrants who lack documents.

If that was the strategy, it hasn’t worked; the Republicans haven’t budged. But the administration’s push on enforcement — including a crackdown on big employers such as Chipotle, stepped-up deportations, especially of undocumented criminals, and much tighter security along the Mexican border — has helped cut the inflow and impeded the hiring of immigrants here illegally.

That’s fine, but enforcement is only half the equation. As Hispanic lawmakers and advocate groups have stressed, Mr. Obama could, on his own authority, order steps that do not require legislation. One such measure would be to curtail or suspend the deportation of undocumented young students who were brought to the United States as children — whose immigration status might be legalized in the future. Mr. Obama has refused to do that, saying the administration should not bypass Congress on immigration policy.

Even without a top-to-bottom legislative package, the administration could push for discrete measures for which an overwhelming economic argument can be made. For instance, why not expand the quota of visas available to immigrants who receive PhDs from American universities in science, math and engineering? What sense does it make to educate such promising students, then force them to return to their home countries, where many will take jobs competing against American companies?

Mr. Obama may be stymied by the Republicans in delivering a full revamping of immigration policy. But there is still work that could be done — and not just in rallying Hispanics to vote against Republicans in 2012.