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.”
Administration officials say they have sought over the past year to target more criminals for deportations. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, the proportion of criminal illegal immigrants deported has risen from about one-third three years ago to about half last year.
Much of the president’s case on border enforcement has been laid out in recent months in appearances by his Homeland Security chief, Janet Napolitano, who told senators in a hearing last week that the administration has pursued “the most comprehensive and dedicated effort to strengthen border security that our country has ever deployed.”
Napolitano acknowledged that measuring progress can be difficult and said her agency is developing a border security “index” combining data such as arrest and crime rates in border cities.
Among the achievements she has highlighted: increasing the number of Border Patrol agents to about 20,000. Meanwhile, she said, the number of border arrests has dropped by nearly half since 2006, an indication, she said, of improved protections that discourage crossings.
Moreover, Napolitano says, crime rates in border communities are among the country’s lowest — despite a drug war raging in some cases within sight of cities such as El Paso and San Diego.
El Paso, where bullets from a shootout across the border grazed City Hall last year, has among the lowest crime rates of cities its size.
Some border mayors have spoken up in recent months to complain that the national debate over the border has fueled impressions that their communities are dangerous.
On Monday, the congressman from El Paso, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), posted a stinging memo on his Web site accusing House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) of “tarnishing the image of border communities” by highlighting violence there. The memo listed statistics showing cities in Boehner’s home state to have far higher violent crime rates than Texas’s border towns.
Republicans say the Obama administration has a long way to go. GOP aides on Capitol Hill say the White House has yet to reach out to the key players demanding stricter border enforcement, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a onetime advocate for legalizing illegal immigrants.
McCain skewered Napolitano last week, questioning her assertions during a hearing and saying that up to 200 “spotters” sit atop mountains in the Arizona desert guiding smugglers across the border — an assertion that Napolitano rejected. Others in the GOP have cited a February finding by the Government Accountability Office that less than half of the border was under full “operational control” by the government.
“And then we’re supposed to believe that the administration is serious about securing our borders. Well, I don’t think so,” McCain said.