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Walk to the Border

Immigration is politically vexed because it splits both parties and scrambles the usual ideological alignments. And on this issue, there is no clear majority.

The Obama administration has particular worries of its own. Obama won election with overwhelming support from Latino voters who helped him carry such swing states as New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. Latino political leaders are appropriately insistent that the president keep his promise to fix immigration and end a system that, in Obama's words, "keeps those undocumented workers in the shadows."

So Obama has thus been sending two signals simultaneously: Yes we can, but not quite yet.

But note that word "begin." That's different from legislating anytime soon, as Obama made clear at his news conference last week. He said all the right things about the urgency of change. "We can't continue with a broken immigration system," he argued. "It's not good for anybody."

There is much fascination with the role of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in crafting the administration's response. As a Democratic House leader, he was decidedly cautious on immigration reform (to the consternation of Latino organizations), but has emerged recently as a supporter of action--eventually.

While noting that his own voting record was sympathetic to comprehensive immigration reform, Emanuel observed in an interview that many of his electorally vulnerable Democratic colleagues hailed from areas in which such a position would be unpopular.

And Emanuel was mightily impressed with the Latino political mobilization in 2008.

Hispanic Democrats have sent a strong signal to the business lobbies. They are saying that until comprehensive reform passes, they will withhold their votes for temporary fixes to raise immigration ceilings for groups of workers sought by particular industries. They hope to pressure business to pressure Republicans to toss more votes immigration reform's way.

The core argument for reform must be that the presence of so many illegal migrants without any enforceable rights undermines the rights of everyone else. The real message that a path to citizenship will send is that all long-term residents of our country should be able to assume their responsibilities as Americans.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.