Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Immigration Dilemma

Last summer, when Republican Senator Marco Rubio was hard at work on an immigration reform bill, it put the White House in an awkward position. President Obama wanted to pass comprehensive immigration reform at some point to add to his legacy. But the timing was miserable for him: Obama wanted the policy victory after the election, lest prominent GOP support for immigrants erode the president’s lopsided advantage among Hispanic voters. So he did the politically expedient thing: he signed an executive order (or more accurately took “executive action”) designed to circumvent, rather than reform, the law.

This was useful for the president in two ways. First, it killed Rubio’s DREAM Act legislation. And second, it checked Republican opposition by forcing them to either oppose the move, which would look like they were opposing immigrants, or keep quiet and let Obama govern without Congress, marginalizing his opposition going forward. But that left the question of what to do about immigration–and Obama’s repeatedly broken promises to address it in comprehensive fashion–in his second term. Apparently governing by executive action is an addictive activity. The president is once again, as the Washington Post reports today, shelving comprehensive immigration reform:

Immigration advocates on Thursday hailed a rule change at the Department of Homeland Security that would make it easier for many undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States as they seek permanent residency, saying it will improve the lives of relatives who could have been separated for years without the changes.

For President Obama — who has called the inability to achieve comprehensive immigration reform among the biggest regrets of his first term — the new policy is among a series of steps his administration has taken over the past year aimed in part at easing the pace of deportations, which have surged during his tenure. Many of the steps came amid a presidential campaign that included sharp disagreements over immigration policy and strong support among Latinos and Asians for Obama.

The centerpiece was Obama’s decision, announced last June, to stop deporting people who were brought to the country as children and have gone on to be productive and otherwise law-abiding residents.

“He is checking off every administrative box he can of what he can do with executive authority that comports with his overall view of immigration policy,” said Angela Kelley, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank allied with the White House.

This demonstrates how effective Obama’s 2012 executive action was in boxing in the GOP. They protested last year, but then the Romney/Ryan ticket lost Hispanics by historic margins, and lost other immigrant groups as well. Chastened by the election returns and demographic trends that threatened to keep punishing the GOP, the party’s rhetoric on the issue took a more positive turn immediately after the presidential election.

What’s notable about the GOP’s response to this week’s move is that there wasn’t one. Obama’s 2012 order gave him the room go big on immigration reform in a second term, but the astounding margin of victory among immigrant groups signaled that politically, Obama–who now doesn’t have to run for reelection and thus feels no great pressure to jump into immigration reform with both feet–need be in no rush to take a polarizing issue that splits the GOP and helps his party electorally off the table.

But what’s the administration’s excuse for delaying reform yet again? It’s that they really, really wanted to do immigration reform early, but Obama’s “timetable has been complicated by the prospect of another round of fiscal negotiations over the debt ceiling in February and the president’s pledge to support a gun-control bill in the wake of the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn.”

Of course the president cannot control events. And sure, man plans while God laughs, and all that. But this is a bit disingenuous. Judging by the way the “fiscal cliff” compromise was reached, Vice President Joe Biden is the White House’s negotiator with Congress, not the president–who not only wasn’t participating constructively in the last-minute dealmaking but was happy to demonstrate as much by holding a campaign-style photo op/stand-up comedy routine while Biden and the GOP leadership were busy working.

And speaking of Joe Biden, he’s the one in charge of the gun control issue as well, with the president designating Biden to lead a commission to figure out what legislation, if any, is needed or politically possible in the wake of the shooting. Since “Prime Minister” Biden (as Jonathan so aptly dubbed him yesterday) is working on all the issues that are supposedly taking up the president’s time, Obama went back to finish his Hawaii vacation.

Maybe if immigration proponents really want reform, they should just do what the GOP leadership finally did and go straight to Biden.

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