Why Is A Top Obama Strategist Helping Sell UK Immigration Crackdown?

August 5, 2013 12:46 p.m.

Barack Obama and his army of Organizing For Action volunteers are currently pushing for “comprehensive immigration reform” that will “give undocumented youth and their families the chance to earn their citizenship,” but one of the president’s top advisors is supporting a far different agenda on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.On Friday, the BBC broke the news that Jim Messina, who is the chairman of OFA and served as Obama’s campaign manager last year, had been hired by Britain’s Conservative Party to advise it for that country’s 2015 general election. Messina’s new allies have a far different set of immigration policies than Obama. As Obama tries to open America’s doors to immigrants, the Conservative Party has recently backed a draconian immigration crackdown that has even led to allegations of racism.

Facing economic woes and increasing competition from nationalist parties, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his government have adopted an increasingly tough stance on immigration. This hard line from the Tories has included measures that seemingly go beyond anything all but the staunchest anti-immigration hawks are proposing here in the states, including having British Border Agency officers conduct spot checks near train stations in London. Just last week those sweeps resulted in the arrest of more than 130 people on immigration violations.

The spot checks have led politicians affiliated with the rival Labor Party, among others, to raise questions of potential racial profiling and push for an investigation. Mark Harper, a member of the Conservative Party and Britain’s minister of immigration, has insisted the spot checks are not racial profiling, though he conceded that the government does not have any data on the ethnicity of the people who are targeted.

“‘They are not allowed to do it based on someone’s physical appearance. If, someone, when seeing an immigration officer, behaved in a very suspicious way, that might give us reasonable suspicion to question them,” Harper said. “It’s about how they behave, not what they look like. It’s not about their appearance or their race or their ethnicity.”

Along with the spot checks, under Cameron the British Home Office launched a controversial ad campaign featuring vans adorned with billboards warning illegal immigrants to: “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST.” Some activists see the campaign as racist including one prominent trade union that responded by dubbing the billboards “vans of hate” and seeking legal advice about whether the ads could be stopped for “incit[ing] racial hatred.”

Leading Democratic pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg has worked with the Labor Party and told TPM American political consultants are particularly in demand abroad because of their expertise with high-tech campaign techniques and social media.

“Part of what’s going on is just that the U.S. has so much more money and so many more elections and therefore a big professional class of people who do this,” Greenberg said. “Part of this just has to do with how corrupt the American democratic system is. The scale of money and spending leads to technological advances and organizational advances.”

Though Greenberg said there has been a “long history” of political operatives from the U.S. and England working on both sides of the pond, he said he was “surprised” by Messina’s new job because of the stark policy differences between Obama and Cameron.

“To go work simultaneously for a party that is doing the opposite of what you supported in the election and also are working right now to help advance in terms of Obama’s agenda from outside … I presume that people get involved in politics because they believe in things and they have a project,” said Greenberg. “This is polar opposite from the politics that Obama has generated. … I think this is striking.”

Immigration isn’t the only area where Messina’s new clients have an agenda that Greenberg described as the diametrically opposed to Obama’s. Greenberg also pointed to Cameron’s push for austerity and spending cuts as an example of the Conservative Party’s “Tea Party policies.”

“The main battle in Britain is over the austerity that produced the double dip recession. … That’s their main case that the Conservatives are saying to the country, that we’ve done this, it’s the right thing, we’re doing it for the long term, and, you know, they’re cutting spending by 20 percent,” said Greenberg. “When you look to October and the big battles we’re going to have here in the U.S., it’s precisely over these big budget cuts with the Tea Party Republicans trying to cut the budgets in short term and telling us it’s good for long term for the country. That’s precisely what the Tories are saying is their case for being re-elected, that they’re making these tough choices for the long term interest of the country.”

Though he said he has worked on a “number of races” with Messina in the past, Greenberg declined to speculate on Messina’s motivations for taking the gig.

“I don’t know. I’ll leave that to others to figure out,” Greenberg said.

Messina has not yet publicly discussed his decision to take the job with the Conservatives. Neither Messina or Organizing For Action responded to requests for comment on this story.

Not all of Messina’s colleagues share Greenberg’s shock about his British gig. One staffer who worked with Messina on the president’s re-election campaign said his work with the Conservative Party was “unsurprising” and was generating “no buzz” among former rank and file staffers given Obama’s close relationship with Cameron and the fact another one of the president’s top advisors, Anita Dunn, worked to help get Cameron and the Conservatives elected in 2010. However, Greenberg argued there are differences between Messina’s and Dunn’s deals with the Conservative Party.

“I think the Anita Dunn thing was questionable, but at least that happened before [Cameron] was in office,” Greenberg said. “Now we know he has pursued … a cap on immigration [and] austerity policy over the last two years. So, we know what he has done is the exact opposite of what you’re battling for in the U.S.”

Though Greenberg called Messina’s new job “striking,” he does not believe the general public pays enough attention to the behind-the-scenes campaign operatives for Messina’s work to become a major issue for the president. However, Greenberg said he thinks Messina’s hopping around the ideological spectrum should cause other political consultants to take stock of their own careers.

“It raises serious questions, which ought to lead political consultants and advisors to examine why they’re doing what they’re doing,” said Greenberg. “Is it just for the thrill of the game? Is it just for the money? Or is there a political project and values that drive this? And most of the people that I’ve worked with in the Obama world are in this for the right reasons.”

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