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Barnes: Status Quo on Immigration is Unsustainable

American people do not want amnesty for illegal immigrants or mass deportation, Melody Barnes, Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser, told the crowd at an event hosted by Brookings’ Hamilton Project this morning. She framed the need for comprehensiveness immigration reform around economic and national security interests.

“The status quo is unsustainable whether we look at it from an economic perspective or a matter of national security,” she said. “Obama is fiercely determined to stop kicking this down the road and get this moving.”

It’s a promise administration officials have made before — and that Republican inaction has made next to impossible. Still, Barnes said the White House would continue to push for immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which would help some illegal immigrant students and military service members gain legal status.

Barnes seemed to be trying to establish the administration’s position on immigration near the center, arguing the White House wants immigration reform, but not amnesty for illegal immigrants. Of course, most immigrants rights advocates don’t argue for blanket amnesty either, but it’s common for the Obama administration to use this debate tactic: Argue both sides of a debate are too extreme and situate the administration position in the middle.

Barnes rejected claims that DREAM Act provisions amounted to amnesty, and argued that any reform bill would have to include back taxes, learning English and background checks for current illegal immigrants to gain legal status. It would also include increased enforcement measures to ensure the U.S. does not allow more illegal immigrants into the country, she said.

While some immigrants rights groups argue comprehensive immigration reform should not have “excessive fees, endless and discriminatory background checks, and grinding bureaucracy,” most don’t advocate blanket amnesty, either — even though conservatives often argue anything but deportation can be considered amnesty.

If the main problem facing immigration is finding a compromise both camps might accept, it makes sense for the Obama administration to try to stake out this place in the middle. It remains to be seen whether conservatives will take the bait.

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