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Dispatches From Obama's Other Wars — on Immigrants and Drugs

Going into the electoral season, the immigration and drug policy crises have worsened.

President Obama came to office promising immigration reform in his first term. As a candidate and as president, Obama also made it clear that he stood firmly in supporting the “rule of law,” even if the law was overdue for reform.

Nearly three years into his administration, Obama has failed to make good on his promise of immigration reform.

But that’s not surprising to close observers of immigration politics. Since Republican opposition blocked comprehensive immigration reform mid-2007, there’s been no clear legislative path for an immigration reform bill.

The anti-immigrant constituency of the Republican Party adamantly opposes any reform that would include legalization of the immigration status of the estimated 11 million immigrants lacking visas, green cards, or working permits.

Within the Democratic Party, support for comprehensive immigration reform has steadily eroded over the past decade. Even with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, an immigration reform bill that included legalization provisions would have little chance of moving forward absent strong presidential leadership.

The president has repeatedly affirmed his continuing support for immigration reform. But the president never — despite all his expressions of support and all his promises — made immigration reform a real goal of his administration. There’s been no leadership or even an attempt to set forth a new vision of immigration reform that could transcend the divides of the current debate.

This too can be readily explained. No one could have expected the president to put immigration reform — whose main prospective beneficiaries aren’t even voters — ahead of the economic stimulus program, medical care reform, and other pressing issues, such as financial regulation reform, extension of unemployment benefits, and passing the budget.

Nonetheless, the failure of President Obama to chart a new path toward pragmatic immigration reform has deeply disappointed reform advocates and the immigrant community. After all, this is an issue that acutely affects the lives of millions and its lack of resolution creates tragic divides in families and roils the stability of thousands of communities.

But even for many who can excuse Obama, citing the constraints of politics in a badly divided America or for those who skeptically viewed Obama’s promises as political manipulation, the administration’s harsh enforcement of immigration laws and its wholehearted embrace of border security have surprised and shocked.

Drug War Continues Under New Name

The first three years of the Obama presidency have also left drug policy reformers reeling.

As a candidate, Barack Obama distanced himself from the illegal drug issue, but he did indicate that his administration would end the four-decades-old “war on drugs” and shift U.S. drug policy to a more balanced, less militarized framework. Candidate Obama also indicated that he didn’t oppose the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

At the same, though, Obama scoffed at questions about drug legalization as if this were not a serious issue and only a concern of the social fringe.

As promised, the Obama administration has dropped the drug war rhetoric that has framed U.S. drug policy over the past four decades. Instead, the administration has reframed the drug war as part of a combat against transnational organized crime. Within the White House’s Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), there is, as promised, more emphasis on the need to treat drug users, not simply incarcerate them.

However, in all but name, the drug war under Obama has escalated, both abroad and at home, particularly along the southwestern border.

Under the new rubric of “combating transnational organized crime,” the Obama administration has increased U.S. support for the drug war in Mexico, increased federal support for state and local drug task forces, and mounted a coordinated crackdown on illegal drug use and trafficking in the Southwest.

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