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How Obama can lead on immigration

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Obama may be speaking because U.S. is planning to sue Arizona
  • Navarrette says Arizona has forced Congress to face issue it doesn't want to confront
  • U.S. needs more ways for people to come legally so fewer come illegally, he says
  • Navarrette writes the speech he would like Obama to give: A call to fix system

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

San Diego, California (CNN) -- It doesn't make any political sense for President Obama to talk about the need to reform our immigration system in a speech Thursday at American University in Washington.

Don't get me wrong. It's the right thing to do. Even though I've learned not to expect much from a president who -- on the most explosive and divisive issue the United States has faced since slavery -- has broken his promises, dragged his feet and advanced the idea that words speak louder than actions. But I'm glad to see Obama at least raise the issue of immigration reform. It just doesn't make any sense for him to do it.

And yet, Obama is throwing caution to the wind and giving the speech. The most popular theory as to why he's doing it is (with apologies to Georgia) Obama has Arizona on his mind. The Grand Canyon State has forced the very national debate that Congress has been trying to keep a lid on.

Within the next days, Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to file a lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law on two grounds.

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One: It violates Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution by attempting to usurp federal authority over the enforcement of immigration law.

Two: It can only be used in a way that would lead to racial and ethnic profiling, in violation of the Fifth Amendment's requirement of due process and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Meanwhile, Arizona officials aren't backing down, citing polls that show a majority of Americans agree with them.

Indeed they do. Why wouldn't people agree with Arizona?

On complicated issues, it's human nature to want simple solutions -- in this case, requiring local police to enforce federal immigration law. And, when it comes to this issue, Arizona has cornered the market on simple.

What isn't simple is the political timing of all this. Forget doing anything on immigration before the end of the year. What this conversation is really about is spring 2011 and whether -- with the likelihood of Democrats in Congress losing control of at least the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate -- Obama's chances for immigration reform would improve significantly with Democrats such as Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi out of the picture. It's very possible.

So now that Obama has decided to give the speech, the question is: What is he going to say? Here's what he should say, but probably won't because it would take courage and candor, and on immigration, Obama has shown neither.

"Honored guests, we need to fix our broken immigration system -- not in spite of our economic difficulties but as a way of alleviating them. When employers can no longer exploit illegal workers, they'll have to raise wages for all workers. We need to do so -- not in spite of our concerns over border security but because of them.

"Border Patrol agents have to be free to focus on more dangerous elements that come across the border. We can help them do that by providing more avenues for people to come legally so fewer come illegally. We need to do so -- not in spite of worries that America's demographics are changing but because, since the first wave of German immigrants arrived on these shores in the late 1770s and were greeted by suspicion and even hostility by the English who were here, one of the great strengths of this country has been its diversity.

"And finally, we need to do so -- not in spite of the fact that local cities and states have, out of frustration over inaction by Washington, taken it upon themselves to enforce federal immigration law but because a national problem deserves a national solution.

"To get there, we must confront some uncomfortable truths: That illegal immigrants do jobs that Americans, particularly young Americans, won't do. That racism and ethnocentrism are, and have always been, part of the debate. That supply does not exist without demand, and you can't stop illegal immigration without an aggressive crackdown on the folks who hire illegal immigrants.

"That enforcement alone, while politically popular, doesn't solve the problem because the desperate and the determined will always find a way to go around, over or under any barrier we put in their path in order to feed their families. And last, this is not, like health care reform or tax cuts, a blue-and-red issue with clear partisan lines but rather one of those areas of public policy where Democrats and Republicans can actually agree.

"This national conversation needs to start now. And, as president, I'm going to lead it. There will be many different ideas about what to do to fix our broken immigration system. But the one thing we can't do is to continue to ignore the problem just because it's so difficult. Americans have never been afraid of 'difficult,' and we're not going to change that now.

Thank you. Good night. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America."

That's what President Obama should say Thursday. Unfortunately, I don't think he will.

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