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Navarrette: Obama adds immigration to full agenda

President Obama is either daring or foolhardy – or maybe a little of both.

Case in point: Although he has been criticized, even by supporters, for overloading his agenda, Obama recently signaled that, before the end of his first year in office, he’ll take up no less challenging a cause than immigration reform.

That’s what the president recently told the 24 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in an hourlong private meeting.

It is significant that, according to statements issued by caucus members, immigration was the only item on the agenda. Obama mentioned his planned trip to Mexico City next month, where he is due to meet with President Felipe Calderón to discuss how the neighboring countries can work together to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

Obama echoed that theme before a crowd of about 1,300 people who recently gathered for a town hall session in southern California. When asked about immigration, the president said the United States has to beef up its border enforcement but also give undocumented immigrants a path to earned legalization.

Obama even argued that legalizing such immigrants helps U.S. workers by eliminating a two-tiered system in which employers can exploit those without papers and in the process reduce wages for everyone.

I’m glad to hear that Obama is planning to address the immigration issue sooner rather than later. I’m just a little surprised. Immigration isn’t an issue that Obama has talked much about since the election.

Just a few months ago, it looked to many observers as if he would likely put off immigration reform until 2011, or maybe until a second term.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Obama has been trying to fix everything else – from the economy to education to health care. Why not also try to do something that some political observers say is next to impossible? Fix the immigration system.

Congress has struck out on that before. From 2005 to 2008, it took several swings at the immigration issue – with no luck. Not that we didn’t learn a lot in the process about why Congress can’t seem to solve this problem.

We learned plenty.

We learned that business interests would use their clout to force lawmakers to import guest workers for jobs that Americans wouldn’t do, but that organized labor would consider that concept a deal-killer.

We learned that immigrant advocacy groups wanted an unconditional path to legalization for the undocumented, but that law and order conservatives would object to what they call amnesty.

Although we need a new round of tougher and easier-to-enforce employer sanctions, it seems only right that they be accompanied by a tamper-proof identification card so employers know who is legally eligible to work.

Conservatives fought the sanctions while liberals fought the ID card. In the end, we were back at square one.

Some conservatives flirted with nativism and wound up trying to keep out both legal and illegal immigrants. Some liberals couldn’t seem to get behind necessary and legally permissible enforcement measures, which advanced the perception that they favored an open border.

As evidence of the latter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi still won’t condone the raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She has been telling groups – most recently, the U.S.-Mexico Border Issues Conference – that these operations are “not the American way” because they sometimes separate families.

Correction. Enforcing the law is the American way. Pelosi struck a more inspiring note when she told attendees: “Every person who comes here, and certainly for the Hispanic community, when they come here, they make America more American.”

If Americans are really going to take another stab at immigration reform, we need more talk like that. We also need more concessions from both sides and leaders who will settle for half a loaf rather than go for it all and wind up fighting for crumbs.

President Obama deserves credit for raising the immigration issue. But he doesn’t seem the type of leader to compromise on matters he considers important. That’s too bad, because the key to this debate is compromise.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

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