Commentary Magazine


Does Obama Want an Immigration Bill?

Last week I wrote about the effort by a bipartisan group of eight senators to come up with a workable compromise on immigration reform that could pass Congress. The group collectively has enough clout to give them cover on both the left and right flanks of their parties to move a bill that would both address the need to control the border and provide a path to legality for the approximately 11 million illegals currently in the country. At that time, the group was planning on announcing their joint proposal this coming Friday. But the wild card was President Obama’s scheduled speech tomorrow in Las Vegas, where he plans to discuss immigration. The concern was that if the president staked out a more extreme position on the issue and used it–as he has throughout his time in office–to demagogue the issue in order to demonize Republicans to Hispanics, it would blow up any chance for bipartisan compromise.

But the group of eight decided not to wait to see if Obama would sabotage their efforts. They released a copy of their memo of understanding over the weekend and plan to formally present it to the press today. While the process of translating this memo into a piece of legislation will not be easy and will require more compromises from both sides of the aisle, it does raise the stakes for the president. Rather than just a hazy prospect of bipartisan compromise, the announcement presents a concrete option for reform that has not been previously possible. That means that if the president doesn’t get behind it or at least get out of its way, it will be the White House and not congressional Republicans or immigration opponents who will be responsible for its failure. Obama’s comments this week may answer the question as to whether he is actually interested in progress on the issue or whether he is uninterested in it except as a cudgel with which to beat his political opponents.

The group, which is composed of Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Jeff Flake and Democrats Charles Schumer, Robert Menendez, Richard Durbin and Michael Bennett, has created a document that is a remarkable achievement and deserving of the broadest possible political support. It is premised on securing the country’s borders and not giving undue advantages to those who have come into the country illegally. But it also recognizes reality in that it proposes that we drop the fiction that illegal immigrants can be deported en masse or that there is some benefit to the nation in allowing them to continue to exist outside the legal and economic framework of the nation. This is long overdue and, by presenting a way for illegals to eventually become citizens without putting them ahead of those who apply legally, it could satisfy many, if not most liberals and conservatives.

But because it is a compromise, it still leaves open the possibility that extremists will seek to sink it. It is a given that some House Republicans will oppose anything that can be branded as “amnesty” for illegals. But with staunch conservatives like Rubio (who rightly argues that the status quo has created a different and even worse form of amnesty) and Representative Paul Ryan behind it, as well as growing chorus of other Republicans who understand the party must attempt to reach out to Hispanics, there is good reason to believe it could pass.

Yet while it was conservatives who spiked President Bush’s principled effort to pass immigration reform, it is now liberals—and specifically the liberal in the White House—who is the greatest threat to this effort.

President Obama ought to be behind this effort since it gives him the chance to help pass a bill that he could rightly claim to be an important part of his legacy. Moreover, since his re-election he ought to have less of a motive to avoid resolution of the issue. However, everything the president has done since November would lead one to believe that he has no interest in working with Republicans even if it meant achieving one of the goals that he has set for his administration.

Just as he seemed to want to blow up a fiscal cliff compromise with inflammatory remarks given even while his representatives were negotiating with Republicans on the legislation that eventually passed, it is entirely possible that he would prefer that the bipartisan compromise proposed by the eight senators fail so he can continue blaming the GOP for being mean to Hispanics. His total warfare strategy against Republicans seems aimed at winning the 2014 midterms so he can have complete Democrat control in the following two years and a blank check to enact far-reaching liberal legislation. Thus, he may actually think that sabotaging a bipartisan deal on immigration now will make it easier for him to get a far more liberal bill that will de-emphasize border security and penalties on illegals in 2015.

Such jaw-dropping cynicism is entirely in character with the president’s record. It would be a stab in the back for Schumer, Menendez, Durbin and Bennett. But it would also show Hispanics (who may be forgiven for wondering why the president never tried to pass immigration reform from 2009-11 when he had control of both Houses of Congress) that their supposed defender is more interested in playing politics than in protecting the interests of immigrants.

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