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Can we break immigration stalemate?

By Tamar Jacoby, Special to CNN
  • Tamar Jacoby: Obama speech hit key points for those who think U.S. immigration broken
  • He called out GOP for stalling reform, but, she says, both parties have done this
  • Each side using issue for political gain, not solving problem, she says. What can be done?
  • Jacoby: The compromise needed may yield very modest reform. Is that at least a start?

Editor's note: Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners in favor of immigration reform.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama gives a good speech, and to see him use the bully pulpit to talk about immigration is encouraging to anyone, no matter how jaded, who thinks the nation needs to fix its badly broken immigration system

The president struck all the right notes in El Paso, Texas, yesterday. The talent and drive immigrants bring to America. The economic benefits. The need for more effective enforcement and a legal immigration system that works. The need to create a national clamor and let Congress know -- the American public wants this problem solved.

The trouble wasn't the speech, it was the political context. And the ultimate measure of the president's remarks will be whether they change the context that has made it so difficult for Congress to come to grips with immigration.

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The president alluded to this gridlock. "That's politics," he said disparagingly at one point, contrasting "good faith efforts" with what he called "the usual Washington games."

But his diagnosis of what's wrong was -- well, awfully political. The villains were all Republicans. The other side had walked away from the table. "They" will "never be satisfied" and, no matter what he does, will likely "try to move the goal posts one more time."

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The truth is it's taken both parties to create the impasse on immigration. In 2006 and 2007, when Congress last considered the issue in earnest, brave, thoughtful Democrats and Republicans worked together to find a compromise. Leaders like President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy were willing to risk the anger of their base -- whether right-wing Republicans or immigrant advocates -- to make a deal that could attract enough votes on both sides of the aisle to get over the finish line in Congress.

Neither party imagined it would walk away with all the credit. And lawmakers who stepped up to lead thought they would earn respect -- not opprobrium -- for bipartisan problem-solving.

Today, none of this is true. Bipartisan problem-solving is all but extinct in Washington. Politicians in both parties are more frightened of offending the base.

In the eyes of most Americans, Democrats own the immigration issue. Few Republicans want to go near it -- in significant part because many Republicans fear that helping Democrats enact law would be handing them a political victory with the nation's fastest growing voting bloc, Latinos.

And all too many Democrats are perfectly happy with this asymmetry -- happy to take credit with Latinos for trying to move the issue, while blaming any and all failure on Republican intransigence. Both parties are putting short-term political gain above the long-term interests of the country -- and even, in the GOP case, their own long-term interest in appealing to Latinos.

The result is complete stalemate, arguably much worse than what the president described. The hard question -- one for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle -- is what if anything can be done to break the logjam?

The bipartisan successes of years past point to some lessons. They're hardly surprising -- if anything, they're Politics 101. But even to list them is to show how far away we are.

• The conversation works best when it begins behind the scenes. Once you start scolding the other party in public, it's hard to make progress.

• Everything has to be on the table. You can't start with a pre-cooked deal -- in this case, comprehensive immigration reform crafted five years ago in a dramatically different political climate -- and ask the other party simply to take it or leave it.

• The deal has to be structured so both parties share the credit -- and also the blame. And make no mistake, there will plenty of blame to go around. Any compromise worthy of the name will inevitably leave many supporters unhappy.

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Are either Democrats or Republicans prepared to address immigration in this spirit today? I wish I could say I saw more who were.

Let's be honest, for longtime advocates of immigration reform -- and I include myself -- even if cooperation like this were possible, the outcome would disappoint.

Ideological lines have hardened. Unemployment is stuck at 9 percent. And meeting in the middle on immigration today would produce a much more limited reform than anything that's been on the table in the past decade -- much tougher enforcement, piecemeal fixes to the legal immigration system and less than a full answer for the unauthorized immigrants already in the country.

That's simply the reality. The agonizing question for those of us who despair at the current state of things: Would this be better than nothing -- a first step forward, at least?

President Obama didn't mean to ask. But intentionally or not, his speech calls this question. If only more politicians on either side were inclined to take it seriously.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tamar Jacoby.

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