Policy: Technology

Did Obamacare's tech problems doom immigration reform?

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Byron York,Immigration,Barack Obama,Obamacare,Drones,Border Security,Technology

David Plouffe, a former top Obama adviser still close to the White House, sees a future in which fixing the technical problems of Obamacare will give President Obama the energy and clout he needs to finally accomplish his most important second-term priority: immigration reform.

"Let's fast forward to the State of the Union and the months after that," Plouffe said on ABC on Sunday. "Health care working better, a lot of people signing up, the economy continuing to strengthen, hopefully no Washington shutdowns. I think the president's numbers will recover, I think people's confidence [in Obama] will recover, and then we need to push Congress to do immigration."

Since the administration has badly mismanaged the creation of a giant new government program, one based in no small part on technology, then why should lawmakers rush to approve another giant new government program, one based in no small part on technology?

Put aside the question of whether or not immigration reform is already dead, at least until after the next elections. Left unspoken in Plouffe's assessment is the more fundamental question of whether the rollout of Obamacare has done irreparable damage to the prospects for any immigration reform proposal.

Since the administration has badly mismanaged the creation of a giant new government program, one based in no small part on technology, then why should lawmakers rush to approve another giant new government program, one based in no small part on technology? That is the question Obamacare has created.

All immigration measures, from the Gang of Eight bill passed by the Senate to the piecemeal measures languishing in the House, rely on strengthening enforcement, both at the border and in the workplace. And much of that is based on technology.

The Gang of Eight scheme provides for all sorts of high-tech measures to be put in place along the southern border. It spells out in excruciating detail the number of motion sensors, drones, cameras and other devices to be employed.

Probably more significant, from a technology perspective, is immigration reform's reliance on a massive new information program based on the E-Verify system. The project would connect every employer in the country with a central database to check whether prospective employees are in the country legally.

The Gang of Eight proposal also requires background checks, relying on other centralized databases, for the estimated 12 million people now in the United States illegally. And then there is what is known as "entry-exit." That is a nationwide high-tech system to track every person who enters the United States on a temporary visa, recording when that person arrives and leaves.

All involve creating big high-tech systems, and all have been troubled in the past. Some of the border measures have already been proven ineffective, and others have never been tested in a real-world situation. Conducting background checks on current immigrants has overwhelmed today's capabilities. Critics have attacked E-Verify, citing error rates and enforcement difficulties. And the federal government has tried and failed for more than a decade to install an entry-exit system.

Now, the administration's bungling of the Obamacare rollout has lowered the public's faith in both the president and government to handle a major new initiative. That, in turn, will have an effect on lawmakers pushing immigration reform.

The effect might be greatest on Republicans who have been slamming the administration over Obamacare, yet are still open to some sort of immigration deal. "Our conference has some who have stated that we must 'solve' the immigration problem and 'fix' our immigration system 'once and for all,' " says one House GOP lawmaker who opposes Gang of Eight-style reform. "It's hard to say government cannot run a health care website on the one hand, and then turn around in the same breath and say government will be able to implement a 1,200-page bill that is in many ways more complex than even Obamacare."

Beyond the question of government competence is the issue of good faith. The Obama administration desperately wants Obamacare to work, and still messed up the job. Is it reasonable to expect it will effectively implement high-tech immigration enforcement measures that it opposes?

"Democrats are dismayed by the Obamacare glitches, but won't really mind the immigration glitches since they involve systems they don't really support in any case," says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which also opposes the Gang of Eight bill. Given that, it could be hard for Republican reform supporters to stay the course.

Immigration reform had plenty of problems before the Obamacare rollout. Now it has more.

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