During his presidential campaign, candidate Obama pledged to come up with a comprehensive immigration bill during his first year in office. Last week, almost six months into his second year in office, he delivered his first major speech on immigration. Better late than never.
Yet chances for actual immigration reform legislation this year appear more elusive than ever. Obama praised a broad outline suggested by Sens. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. But they haven't produced a bill.
Even more telling, Obama's speech mentioned not even a hint of a deadline. On health care, the Afghanistan war and every other issue this administration really cares about, the president sets deadlines. Not this time.
Yet he had to say something, even if the speech was more about politics than policy. Tea Party Republicans have been controlling much of the debate, shifting Congress and the public toward draconian solutions driven more by emotions than good sense.
Impatience has caused Obama's popularity rating among Latinos to fall to 57 percent in June, according to a Gallup poll. That's down from 69 percent in January. "Obama broke a promise," Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, a leading campaigner for comprehensive immigration reform, recently complained. "It's just that simple."
Obama's Justice Department is expected to file suit against Arizona's new law that requires police officers who have reasonable suspicion to question the immigration status of people they've stopped for other reasons.
Obama threw down his marker as firmly on the side of comprehensive immigration reform of the sort that President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and some other Republican lawmakers supported before conservative backlash left McCain fighting for his own party's re-nomination this year in Arizona.
Without mentioning the expected lawsuit, Obama criticized the Arizona law and put the onus back on Republicans for the lack of progress on comprehensive reform.
He made all the right points. Quoting President Bush, he described an approach similar to what Bush and McCain supported, then invited Republicans to jump on board again.
He outlined the debate as essentially a clash between two goals that need to be reconciled: On one side, control the borders. We have "We have more boots on the ground on the Southwest border than at any time in our history," he said twice. Yet, that's not enough for opponents who insist on pursuing the impossible goal of actually sealing the border.
On the other side: a "pathway to legal status" for illegal immigrants who already are here. Like Bush's proposal, his plan calls for illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law, be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, learn English and "get right with the law before they can get in line and earn their citizenship."
That sounds reasonable enough to please both sides without fully satisfying either, which is the essence of compromise. But where's the new legislation that might move Obama's promise into law? Don't hold your breath. Obama suggested a good "middle ground" between expelling all illegal immigrants and granting them all blanket amnesty, but he did not offer much in the way of details as to how that might work.
Obama's omission of timelines indicates he doesn't expect to get anything passed this year, and Democrats are expected to lose congressional seats in November. That means comprehensive reform will be even harder to win, unless it's moved during the lame-duck session after November, when getting re-elected is less of a concern.
Either way, we can expect a lot more talk, with or without much action.
Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage