President Obama’s Immigration Threat Is Politically Naive And Unrealistic
President Obama's threat to take action on immigration if Congress doesn't act by the end of the year ignores political reality,
Sunday during an interview on Face The Nation, President Obama repeated an ultimatum that he had laid down in the days after the Republican’s sweeping election victories in the midterms:
President Barack Obama said on Sunday that he will pursue an executive order on immigration reform and that congressional Republicans can take further action if they so please.
“I’m going to do what I can do through executive action,” Obama said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “It’s not going to be everything that needs to get done. And it will take time to put that in place.”
“And in the interim, the minute they pass a bill that addresses the problems of immigration reform, I will sign it and it supersedes whatever actions I take,” the president continued. “I’m encouraging them.”
Obama laid blame for his forthcoming executive order at the feet of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for failing to allow a vote on the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed with a bipartisan majority in the Senate.
“I preside over a process in which the Senate produced a bipartisan bill. I then said to John Boehner, ‘John, let’s get this passed through the House,'” Obama told “Face the Nation” host Bob Scheiffer. “For a year, I stood back and let him work on this. He decided not to call the Senate bill and he couldn’t produce his own bill. And I told him at the time, ‘John, if you don’t do it, I’ve got legal authority to make improvements on the system. I prefer to see it done through Congress, but every day that I wait we’re misallocating resources, we’re deporting people that don’t need to be deported.'”
The president said he then laid out his final deadline for House Republicans. “If you can’t get it done before the end of the year, I’m going to have to take the steps that I can to improve the system,” he said he told Boehner.
This isn’t anything new for the President, of course. Back at the end of July as Congress was preparing to leave for its summer recess, the President said that he had asked his advisers to put together a set of proposals for executive action that he could take under existing laws to provide some kind of relief for people impacted by what he has long, and largely correctly, characterized as a broken immigration system that doesn’t work for people who try to come her legally as well as creating the problem of a huge shadow economy of undocumented immigrants. While there’s been no real discussion about what this executive action might entail, speculation has centered mostly around directions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prioritize deportation efforts on people who have committed violent crimes or immigration fraud that has victimized large numbers of people along with some kind of expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that was adopted back in 2012. Neither proposal could be made permanent, of course, and would always be subject to reversal by Congress or a subsequent President, but they would go a long way toward providing some relief in the most extreme cases of people subjected to immigration laws that, in many cases, make no sense at all.
Initially, the White House said that the intention was to introduce the planned executive action at some point at the end of the summer, and before the midterm elections. However, thanks largely to pressure behind the scenes from vulnerable Democratic Senators such as Mark Udall, Mark Pryor, and Mary Landreiu, the White House announced out of the blue that there would be no action taken before the midterm election. The only thing that this decision seemed to accomplish, though, was to annoy Latino voters. It certainly didn’t help Democratic incumbents like Udall or Pryor, and it probably isn’t going to save Landreiu from an expected loss in the December 6th runoff election between her and Congressman Bill Cassidy. As we got closer to the election, there were even some rumors that the President might not take any action at all before the end of the year. Now, both in his comments last week and in this interview, the President is purporting to threaten Congress with action he says he will take even though, thanks to the election results, it can hardly be said that he’s arguing from a position of strength, or that his demands on the Speaker at this point are particularly reasonable under the circumstances. The fact that, after the President first set this end of the year deadline last week, the Speaker was quick to argue that unilateral executive action at this point would “poison the well” with the new Congress was a warning to the President that, based on his interview the Bob Schieffer, the President doesn’t seem to be taking to heart just yet.
Andrew Sullivan is among those who argues that the President’s new position is not the correct strategy:
The threat makes sense as a way to bring the GOP to the table, but not if he fully intends to follow through before the end of the year regardless. Instead of forcing the GOP to come up with a compromise bill – which if it can, great, and if it cannot, will split the GOP in two – he’d merely recast the debate around whether he is a “lawless dictator”, etc etc. rather than whether it is humane or rational to keep millions of people in illegal limbo indefinitely. It would strengthen those dead-ender factions in the House that are looking for an excuse to impeach. It would unify the GOP on an issue where it is, in fact, deeply divided. And it would not guarantee a real or durable solution to the clusterfuck.
In other words, it makes much more sense to me for Obama to ask the GOP for a major legislative proposal before he takes any unilateral action. If they fail to do so – and it’s perfectly possible they do, given intense divisions within their ranks – then Obama’s executive action makes much more sense and can be defended much more easily, as a response to Congressional failure. But to pre-empt this with a divisive act that would polarize the country still further would make no long-term progress likely and put the blame for gridlock on his shoulders, rather than the GOP’s. And what good would that do?What I’m saying is that he should precisely “wait” some more before acting on this. He’s waited long enough to make another six months’ delay, while he demands a bill to sign, a perfectly palatable option. If he accepts another bucketload of efforts to secure the border as part of the deal, his position remains more popular than the GOP’s with the center and the Latino population. And the real goal of all this is legislation that can guarantee citizenship, better immigration criteria and a secure border beyond any president’s executive orders or revised regulations. Unilateralism can make that less likely rather than more.
Sullivan is largely correct here. Even if one believes that the House should have taken up the Senate immigration bill when it was completed and reported out last year, or that it should have put together its own bill at some point over the past year as groups ranging from Evangelical and Catholic religious organization and the Chamber of Commerce have been urging it to do, the fact of the matter is that last week’s elections have changed the game in Washington to such a degree that it would simply be impossible for Republicans to comply with the President’s deadline in any realistic fashion. Even before the election, the odds that the House would actually have approved the Senate bill were, I think, far lower than many pundits and advocates believed they were. For one thing, the hypothesis that Republicans would feel more free to vote yes once they were past the point at which they could be challenged in a primary ignores the fact that, for many activists, this is the kind of vote that wouldn’t be forgotten easily and could become an issue in a primary challenge down the road in the 2016. For another, I’m not so certain that House Democrats would have been as willing to help the GOP Leadership out in getting his bill passed as their own leaders have repeatedly represented. After all, it would be better to let the bill die at Republican hands and use it as a campaign issue than to take the issue off the table by letting the Senate bill become law.
With the election, though, it seems clear that everything has changed. The Senate that approved the 2013 bill has been voted out of office and it seems highly unlikely that the bill would make it through the new Senate in its present form. Moreover, that bill will die at the end of the 113th Congress if the House doesn’t act. After that, both chambers of Congress, which will now be controlled by the Republicans, will have to come up with some new bill that may resemble the Senate bill in some respects, but which will obviously have to differ from it in other ways, in some ceases quite significant ways. If there is going to be immigration reform in the 114th Congress, then, it will largely be guided by Republican priorities far more than the 2013 Senate bill was. President Obama is no doubt aware of this, which may be way he’s daring the GOP to do something by the end of the year, but in setting that deadline he’s really not giving Republicans a reasonable choice at all. Trying to push through immigration now, when there are many members of the House who will not be part of the new Congress and the Senate will not even be representative of what the American people voted into office just last Tuesday, may sound like strong, forceful political rhetoric but it’s completely unrealistic on President Obama’s part and can only be characterized as a plan guaranteed to set his relationship with the new Congress off on the precisely wrong foot, or a bluff that the President will eventually cave on and thus hand the GOP a victory on the eve of its assumption of greater power that he really did not need to hand them. It also seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the person sitting across the table from him. Speaker Boehner has had enough difficulty over the years in dragging his caucus along on deals made with this White House, given the outcome of the election it would seem next to impossible for him to do it this time around. Thus, there is no rational reason for Boehner to go to the mat for the President on this issue, because all it would do is undercut his credibility with his fellow Republicans before he’s even had a chance to utilize it in the new Congress.
I tend to agree with those who argue that we need to get immigration reform passed sooner rather than later, and based on what I’ve read about the speculation of what it might entail I probably would not have much of a problem with the substance of the President’s planned executive action. At the same time, though, politics requires one to be realistic about what can be achieved and its been obvious for some time that immigration reform died in the 113th Congress some time ago and that it certainly isn’t going to get passed into law during the coming lame duck session. Anyone who expects otherwise simply isn’t paying attention to political reality. Because of that, President Obama’s deadline for action by the end of the year is completely unrealistic, and in the end the kind of politically tone deaf move that would end up causing more damage, both to the cause of immigration reform itself and the relationship between the Executive and Legislative Branches going forward between now and the end of the President’s term, than it is worth. The President has already waited four months since making his threat of executive action, and nearly eighteen months since the Senate passed its version of immigration reform. He can afford to wait a little bit longer, allow the new Congress to gavel into session, and give them some reasonable amount of time to come up with at least a proposal for reform if not a completed bill. Acting sooner than that is just likely to guarantee that no such bill will be forthcoming and that that the issue of immigration reform will continue to languish without anyone acting on it. Of course, given the advantage that such a development gives his party with Latino voters, perhaps that’s exactly what the President wants.