Paul Ryan’s Comments On The Likelihood Of Immigration Reform Simply Reflect Political Realty
Paul Ryan's admission that immigration reform will not happen as long as Barack Obama is President simply reflects the reality of immigration politics in Congress.
As Steven Taylor has noted, Paul Ryan made the rounds of the Sunday morning political chat shows today to talk about his new role as Speaker of the House and made some news with his assertion that he doesn’t believe that the Republicans in Congress can work with President Obama on comprehensive immigration reform, a position that appears to rule out any such reform before the next President takes office:
House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan on Sunday ruled out working with President Barack Obama on overhauling U.S. immigration policy, saying it would be “a ridiculous notion” to pursue legislation because Obama cannot be trusted on the issue.
Republicans have fought Obama’s unilateral steps that bypassed a gridlocked Congress to try to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.
Obama’s executive orders, announced last November but put on hold by the courts, would let up to 4.7 million illegal immigrants stay without threat of deportation. It was aimed mainly at helping 4.4 million people whose children are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
The immigration issue has driven a wedge between Hispanics, an increasingly important voting bloc, and Republicans, many of whom take a hard line on illegal immigration, to the benefit of Obama’s fellow Democrats. Most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States are Hispanic.
Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican chosen as speaker on Thursday to replace the retiring John Boehner, said he would not try to advance comprehensive immigration legislation while Obama, whose term ends in January 2017, is president.
“I think it would be a ridiculous notion to try and work on an issue like this with a president we simply cannot trust on this issue,” Ryan said in an interview aired on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
“He tried to go it alone, circumventing the legislative process with his executive orders, so that is not in the cards. I think if we reach consensus on how best to achieve border and interior enforcement security, I think that’s fine,” Ryan added.
Ryan acknowledged that he promised the House Freedom Caucus, which includes the most conservative members of the House, not to bring up immigration reform legislation, and blamed Obama.
“This president tried to write the law himself,” Ryan told the CNN program “State of the Union”, accusing Obama of exceeding his constitutional powers. “Presidents don’t write laws. Congress writes laws.”
In the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, candidate Donald Trump and others have talked tough about illegal immigration. Trump has promised to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and to deport all illegal immigrants already in the United States.
The Senate in 2013 voted to pass bipartisan legislation for the biggest overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in decades in a generation, but the measure failed to win House approval thanks to opposition by conservative Republicans.
Pablo Manriquez of the Democratic National Committee called Ryan’s comments “laughable” and said the Republicans are the ones who are untrustworthy on immigration reform.
“Two years ago, Republicans backed away from a comprehensive, bipartisan agreement that would have further strengthened our borders while requiring those who want to contribute to our country to register, undergo a full background check, pay a fine and pay taxes, and get in the back of the line for a path to citizenship,” Manriquez said.
Ryan’s predecessor, retiring Ohio Congressman John Boehner, echoed the new Speaker’s comments:
In an interview aired on “State of the Union”, Boehner said he regrets immigration reform legislation was not passed while he was speaker.
Asked about whether the right flank among House Republicans bore some responsibility for thwarting immigration legislation, Boehner said there was “probably some blame there as well.”
“Reforming our immigration system, securing our borders would be good for America. But unfortunately the president just kept poisoning the well – poisoning the well – to the point where it was impossible to put it on the floor of the House,” Boehner said.
This statements are really nothing new from Republican leadership, of course. Over the course of the past year, both Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said that immigration reform is essentially impossible as long as President Obama is in office because, from the point of view of many members of their caucuses, he has acted in a manner that demonstrates that he cannot be trusted. The roots of this distrust, of course, can be found in the history of immigration reform during the entire Obama Administration. Notwithstanding the fact that his party had near complete control of Congress from the time he took office through the end of 2010, neither President Obama nor Congressional Democrats made any real effort to put an immigration reform plan of any kind forward in either the House or the Senate. It wasn’t until after the 2010 elections, when Republicans had gained control of the House, that any real effort was made by Senate Democrats to put together a bill that anyone could consider and that bill didn’t get a final vote in the Senate until June of 2013. In between that time, though, President Obama had already acted via executive action to enact the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that granted temporary relief from deportation for a select group of people who were in the country illegally because they had been brought here as young children. At that time, though, and at several points thereafter, the President made clear his position that the DACA program was essentially as far the law the Constitution allowed him to act and that the ball was now in Congress’s court in terms of any further reform of the nation’s immigration laws. The DACA program, and President Obama’s decision to essentially make an end run around Congress even before either body had acted on immigration, provoked some complaints from Republicans about executive overreach, but for the most part the response was muted. In no small part, this is likely because the program was announced in the midst of the 2012 election season and Republicans were reluctant to take too harsh a position against a program that was widely popular with Latino voters.
In the wake of DACA and the elections, though, it seemed as though we might actually see some action on immigration reform out of Congress with President Obama re-elected and the Democrats still in control of the Senate. There was initial success, of course, with the passage of a reform package in the Senate on somewhat bipartisan grounds, but the effort essentially stalled there. The House was reluctant from the start to take up the Senate bill, and the efforts by a group of House Republicans to put together their own bill fell apart in no small part because of the political forces inside the GOP made considering immigration reform a difficult process at best. In the end, despite numerous reports that the House would be taking up immigration reform at one time or another, in no small part in response to lobbying by a seemingly odd coalition of business and evangelical groups, there was no action in the House on immigration reform.
This brings us to the immediate aftermath of the 2014 elections, when in the wake of an overwhelming Republican victory President Obama made the somewhat odd decision to give Congress an ultimatum to act on immigration before he would utilize the executive authority he had previously conceded he did not have. As I argued at the time, to the extent it was actually designed or intended to get Congress to act, this ultimatum was both politically naive and somewhat unreasonable. First of all, the Presidents apparently belief that something as complicated and important as immigration reform should be dealt with by a lame duck Congress that was only going to be in session for six weeks after Election Day 2014 belies the idea that he actually intended to give Congress time to act. Had the 2014 elections not produced significant changes in the makeup of Congress, perhaps, this would have been a reasonable expectation, but that’s not what happened. The Republicans had just gained control of the Senate, and the idea that they were going to let a Senate and House made up of people who were either retiring or had been defeated for re-election was just absurd. In those circumstances, the comment at the time by Speaker John Boehner that Obama’s ultimatum and threat to undertake execution action would “poison the well” with the new Congress was completely understandable. If the President truly wanted Congress to act, he would have given the new Congress some reasonable amount of time to convene in January to consider the matter rather than pretending that the 2014 election had not completely changed things on Capitol Hill. This is especially true given the fact that, up until the point that the President issued his ultimatum, he had said repeatedly that he lacked the authority to take any action beyond DACA itself.
As it turned out, President Obama didn’t even stick to his end of the year deadline and ended up announcing a new program that expanded on DACA to include, among others, illegal immigrants who have children who are American citizens by virtue of having been born here. The reaction from Republicans was about what you’d expected it be. Members of the House and Senate denounced it as an Executive Branch power grab, and while polling showed that Americans supported the substance of what the President proposed they were opposed to the idea of the President acting outside of Congressional authorization. Within less than a month after the program was announced, a number of lawsuits had been filed against the program, including one by Texas and sixteen other states that has proven to be a serious obstacle to implementation of the new program. The District Court Judge to which that case has been assigned almost immediately placed a stay on the implementation of the new program, and that stay has been upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. While the basis for the stay deals with the allegation that the Administration did not comply with the rule-making provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, both the District Court Judge and the Appeals Court Judges that have heard the matter have indicated deep skepticism about the legal merits of the Administration’s position. In any case, it’s clear at this point that the Texas lawsuit will be tied up in litigation for some time to come, and that the program the President announced in November 2014 will most likely not be implemented while he is in office.
All of this provides what I think is some much needed context for Speaker Ryan’s comments about the likelihood of immigration reform in Congress before the end of 2016. As it is, it’s unlikely that any Congress would take such a complicated subject in an election year. For one thing, both parties have strong political motivations to leave the issue unresolved so it can be used as a campaign issue in both the Presidential race and the races for House and Senate seats. For Republicans, there’s the need not to upset the delicate apple cart that is immigration politics inside the Republican coalition. For Democrats, there’s obviously more political advantage in leaving the issue unresolved and using it to motivate turnout among Latino voters than there is in passing legislation that Republicans would get at least some credit for. Add the events of last November into all of this, and the suggestion that the House may yet file its own lawsuit against the President’s actions, something that became seemingly more likely in the wake of recent Court action in the House lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act, and Ryan’s position makes sense.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s completely correct to say that Republicans could deal with immigration reform here and now, but that’s a statement that ignores political reality and also ignores the fact that, for most Americans except for those deeply invested in the issue on either side, immigration reform is a low priority issue. One may not like what Speaker Ryan said, but it’s reality and nobody should expect action on this issue until the next President takes office.