For most of the last two years, immigration has been an issue that worked in favor of President Obama and Democrats. But the flood of illegals in the past few months that has brought large numbers of unaccompanied minors as well as adults into the country is changing the national conversation about this topic as well as the politics of immigration.
The spectacle of angry citizens trying to stop busloads of undocumented children being sent to a federal shelter in Murrieta, California last week shocked many around the nation. Yet while those outbursts were considered unseemly, the inability of the government to do anything to stem, let alone stop the wave of illegals was yet another disaster for an Obama administration that lately seems as if it is going through the motions. While the president is sticking to the same script he’s been using since before his reelection in which he blames Republicans for the failure to pass immigration reform, there’s no evading the fact that the latest surge of those coming into the country without permission is being widely blamed on his past statements opposing deportation of illegals. As much as hostility to Hispanic immigrants, many of whom are illegal, is a distinct liability for Republicans, the drama along the border is further undermining Obama’s authority and demonstrating that he seems to have lost any ability to control events.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s appearance yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press only added to the impression that the administration has no plan to deal to with the problem other than talking about GOP obstructionism. When asked point blank whether the more than 50,000 children who had streamed illegally into the country would be deported, he responded carefully about how complicated the subject was. But the bottom line here is that many of the illegals appear to have made a safe bet. If they can make it across the border after a harrowing journey in which many are victimized by criminal gangs or subjected to violence and other hardships, there is every reason to believe that most will wind up being allowed to stay.
I believe that those, like Mitt Romney, who have spoken in recent years about “self-deportation” as a solution to this problem have been engaged in magical thinking. The illegals are not going to deport themselves. Nor is there any prospect that even a less lethargic federal government under better leadership than we currently enjoy could possibly deport the 12 million people who are estimated to be here illegally. President Obama is right that comprehensive immigration reform is necessary. Republicans have been wrong to block it, especially since it presented an excellent opportunity to beef up border security. The negative message many on the right have been sending to Hispanics is also a long-term problem since it writes off a huge and growing demographic group.
But even if we admit that Republicans have failed here, that doesn’t constitute an excuse for Obama’s failure to govern or to control the border. Indeed, it’s clear that this particular surge was set off, in no small measure, by statements from the president that led many thinking about entering illegally to the not unreasonable conclusion that they had a good chance of being allowed to stay once they got here. This underlines the point that Republican backers of immigration reform like Senator Marco Rubio have tried to make: the “amnesty” for illegals that immigration foes dread is what is happening now under our current broken system. As much as we need it to be fixed, the president has exacerbated the crisis and Jeh Johnson’s poor performance in the face of this wave of young illegals is only making it worse.
The president’s defenders claim that what is happening now is a regional problem that has more to do with endemic violence in Central America and the desire of so many people there to come to this country rather than any statement issued by the White House. But this excuse doesn’t cut it. Regional violence and the dream of North American prosperity is nothing new. What is different now is that the illegals believe Barack Obama won’t throw them out.
Even supporters of immigration reform understand that what we are witnessing along the border is more than a humanitarian crisis. It is also the collapse of the rule of law. However great the misjudgments of many Republican lawmakers might be, Obama can’t evade his responsibility for governing and enforcing the law. His failure to do so creates the impression that government doesn’t function anymore, a factor that is more responsible for the hysteria in Murrieta than anti-immigrant sentiments. The problem with incumbency is not just the boredom of the public with a president after six years. It’s that they expect the president to govern and it is on this question that Obama will be judged. Democrats who think this won’t hurt them in the midterm elections aren’t thinking clearly.