By Suzanne Gamboa
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has done what many critics of immigration reform wanted - put border security first.
Obama sent more investigative agents to the border, poured money into upgrading ports of entry and targeted traffickers who smuggle in people and drugs, then smuggle out guns and cash.
Shifting the focus away from those who come to the U.S. illegally in search of work, he planted it squarely on criminals who foment violence in Mexico and kidnap and kill inside the United States.
Obama hopes those moves will gain him leverage in dealing with the thorniest part of immigration reform: creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But will his gambit work?
In three tries in three years, Congress has failed to pass an immigration bill, mainly due to opponents' vague insistence on "border security first." No one has said who and what will determine that the border is secure, but the mantra provides clever cover for an unwillingness to deal with the nearly 12 million people living in the U.S. illegally.
Last week, Obama hinted he's aware of that.
"If the American people don't feel like you can secure the borders," he told reporters, "then it's hard to strike a deal that would get people out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship who are already here, because the attitude of the average American is going to be, 'Well, you're just going to have hundreds of thousands of more coming in each year.'"
There is no comprehensive immigration bill moving through Congress so far this session, although there are several bills dealing with various aspects of the issue. In his 2010 budget proposal, Obama plans to ask Congress to provide $27 billion to beef up border enforcement and security.
Under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, nearly 670 miles of fence and barriers went up on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Border Patrol was doubled to about 18,000 agents. The immigration agency's Fugitive Operations Teams saw its budget soar from $9 million in 2003 to $218 million in 2008.
Thousands of people were arrested in crackdowns on employers and in raids of private homes. Nearly 350,000 immigrants, a record, were deported. It took billions of dollars to create jail space to house those awaiting deportation. Thousands of employers began using an immigration database to check whether the people they've hired can legally work in the U.S.
Still, Bush's record doesn't satisfy a main congressional critic, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"It's not enough," Cornyn said, pointing out that the number of border agents pales in comparison with, say, New York City's police force, which has nearly 40,000 officers.
Obama has been building on Bush's work. He said he wants to take a more thoughtful approach to enforcement than, as he put it, "just raids of a handful of workers." His administration is concentrating on companies that recruit undocumented workers who may be depressing U.S. wages, but won't ignore people working illegally at those businesses.
He hasn't given in to the demands of some of his strongest supporters - immigration advocates and Latinos - for a moratorium on workplace raids. He's also made Mexico's drug violence a high priority for the Homeland Security Department.
"It's been clear since Janet Napolitano became secretary, the border enforcement is not going to weaken one iota," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book "The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11. "She has not backed off any of the significant border measures put in place by the previous administration."
Some immigration opponents warn that Obama is shifting enforcement from cracking down on illegal immigration in the U.S. to helping Mexico with a problem it should be solving itself.
Concerns over Mexico's drug violence and its spillover into the U.S. make it tough to criticize Obama's efforts. It's difficult to argue that the U.S. should be spending money arresting hotel maids and day laborers while drug dealers and gun traffickers are on the loose.
After the release of the department's raid guidelines, one of the harshest immigration reform critics, Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, said he was cautiously optimistic.
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So for now, Obama can show he's at least made an attempt to placate the critics.