Many Americans would love to have the free-flowing and, for the most part, respectful engagement Australia enjoys on immigration.

President Barack Obama, not quite busted after his year-long battle with Arizona on the issue, announced yesterday he’s giving immigration reform another go next year.

Washington’s great broken record is that comprehensive immigration reform is the president of the day’s goal for (insert next year). A dream for generations of US presidents. George W Bush tried twice in his second term. Barack “yes we can” Obama swept into office slating the reform as his major achievement for 2010, imaging health care would be fait accompli in his first year.

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They do try. In May President Obama promised to boost the border presence with an additional 1200 National Guard troops with automatic weapons. The same idea if a smaller scope than that proposed by Senator John McCain. His “tough on border protection’ stance was supposed to provide the political cover for an amnesty plan for existing undocumented residents.

By June the issue devolved into a battle in the courts and over the airwaves between the US government and the state of Arizona, which had just passed the nation’s strictest anti-illegal immigration law, said to encourage racial profiling.

“Time and again, this issue has been used to divide and inflame, and to demonise people,” Obama remarked by early July. “And so the understandable, the natural impulse among those who run for office is to turn away and defer this question for another day, or another year, or another administration.”

No sooner than he said this, plans for comprehensive reform were again abandoned as it became clear neither the national economy nor the Senate were sufficiently under control. Instead a faint whisper of reform, known as the DREAM Act, became the fallback option.

The DREAM Act is the legislative equivalent of girl scout cookies; so feel-good and innocuous it could serve as the plot device for Legally Blonde 3. Children of undocumented immigrants, brought into the country under the age of 14, but go on to complete college or two years of military service and have no criminal record are offered a path to citizenship.

Giant placards of attractive honour-role athlete students with heritages from Central America, Korea and Iran were brought onto the floor of the House and Senate, each an “amazing story” of American spirit overcoming adversity. These teens are not responsible for their parents’ choices, supporters said. Opponents said the bill rewarded people who broke the law.

Left out of the bill were many of the aspects of comprehensive reform that appealed largely to the Left: amnesty for the 11 million undocumented adult workers, green cards for same-s-x partners of American citizens, and unfair working conditions for undocumented workers. The drug trade, which cannot be separated from US-Mexican border and immigration concerns, was also ignored.

Last week the DREAM Act was defeated in the Senate, by a margin of one third of the total votes. It will be not brought back for another attempt before the next congress is sworn in.

Yesterday Obama responded to that defeat and the Republican takeover of the House by promising the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that comprehensive immigration reform would be his legislative agenda for 2011.

While political science academics lined up to state the obvious, that reform has no chance at all in the next congress, they also noted pushing loudly can only help Obama’s support in the increasingly important Hispanic voting block.

As an added bonus, a Democratic president building credentials on tackling border security, American jobs and illegal immigration could force Republican presidential candidates into populist positions early in the campaign but do no favours come the general election.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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