But in using a speech in El Paso to highlight his enforcement record, Obama will signal that he intends to try turning the immigration debate into a political winner among conservative swing voters who back tougher immigration policies.
The president is expected to reel off what his aides say is evidence of an unprecedented focus on border security: hundreds of millions of dollars spent since he took office on high-tech fencing, aerial drones and a doubling of the border patrol since 2004. The result, aides say, has been a steep decline in illegal incursions and plummeting crime rates in U.S. border communities from Texas to California.
“He is championing what Latinos are looking for, which is real immigration reform, while at the same time he is being a spokesperson for serious improvements in border enforcement, which independent voters support,” said Doris Meissner, who was the Clinton administration’s top immigration official.
Most experts and activists say any new legislative deal on immigration is highly unlikely in the near term.
A flurry of White House activity on the issue in recent weeks, though, underscores the administration view that immigration could play an important role in the president’s reelection campaign next year — with Obama needing to revive enthusiasm among Latinos while boosting his standing with centrist swing voters.
Obama has hosted some high-profile Latinos, including Spanish-language newscasters and “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria, at White House meetings to offer assurances that he still wants an immigration overhaul.
The president and administration officials have said they want to find points of compromise with Republicans — and aides say convincing the public that the border is safer than it has been in years might pressure the GOP.
Activists have repeatedly raised concerns, saying that the administration’s policy of deporting up to 400,000 illegal immigrants a year is disrupting families and targeting the wrong people. They want Obama to issue an executive decree barring the deportation of young people who would qualify for the Dream Act, legislation that would legalize many children of illegal immigrants.
“To simply talk about bringing Republicans and Democrats together, and somehow through some magical wand, the Congress is all going to get together and give relief to the immigrant community, is a false argument,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who attended a recent White House meeting.
Cecilia Munoz, a top White House adviser on immigration issues, told reporters last week that Obama “doesn’t feel he can bypass Congress” for “a major group of folks.”