Three Failures on Immigration Reform

Watching President Obama stand outside the White House under this afternoon’s mid-summer sunshine and express frustration with the failure of his 5-year strategy on immigration reform, one could sense his emotions. But on a moment’s reflection, the failure of immigration reform rests entirely on the President’s shoulders.

Obama claimed that he would be taking executive action in the coming weeks. Although I am a proponent of greater immigration, his speech struck me as a huge mistake. What today’s White House narrative reveals, in fact, is insincerity. True, a bipartisan bill did receive 68 of 100 votes in the Senate one year ago (on June 27, 2013), and that legislation has indeed languished because the House of Representatives won’t consider it, not even in committee.

The real story is that Republicans in the House were never willing to pass a comprehensive bill, certainly not one with a hint of amnesty, and the administration knows it. Indeed, one has to wonder if the goal of pushing the all-or-nothing big bill was ever anything more than a media tactic.  Either the President is shedding crocodile tears or he really believes that Republicans in the House – not the Senate, he reminds us – don’t like foreigners.

In his remarks, Obama called out Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) for inaction.  That’s off target. The blame belongs on the Democrats and their failed tactics. Three failures stand out.

First, the evidence is pretty strong that leading Democratic politicians prefer that reform festers unresolved. If Barack Obama really wanted to change immigration law, he would have supported comprehensive reform as a Senator back in 2007 when it was championed by President Bush (Republican) and Senator Kennedy (Democrat).  The even more damning fact is that the Democratic Party had majority control of the Senate and House for two full years in 2009 and 2010 after Obama became President. Nancy Pelosi, not John Bohener, was Speaker. Why wasn’t comprehensive legislation passed then?

Some say that the White House was too busy in the first two years of the Obama Presidency, a ridiculous defense. Candidate Obama had promised action – “I can guarantee that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support.” – and he turned his back on it when in office. Despite the weak economy, the White House had time to push for and enacted the hugely expensive, controversial Affordable Care Act. The White House had time for lots of other legislation, even time to enact “Cash for Clunkers.” But no time for immigration reform legislation.

Second, the President has constantly taken executive action in favor of policies he likes and disregarded parts of laws he dislikes or that are inconvenient. The White House refuses to enforce major provisions in its own signature legislation on health care, and it has overstepped its authority on immigration law as well. Left unsaid in today’s remarks is the fact that two years ago this month, (June 15, 2012) President Obama took executive action on immigration by changing the law through the DACA memorandum. The memo granted what critics call amnesty for undocumented children. It’s more complicated than that, sure, but nobody can deny the action sowed uncertainty, confusion, and the sense this White House could do whatever it wanted. If Americans aren’t clear about the implications of the memo, do you really think the impoverished people of Central America are? And yet we are to believe the surge of children arriving at the southern border are unrelated? Rubbish.

Why would any legislator trust this administration to be an honest broker now? Talking to staffers around Washington, one discovers that the President’s constant threat of more executive fiat is an ever-present destabilizer. Even the President’s Democratic allies admit off the record to the media that this White House is absolutely terrible at fostering trust and good will, even among Democratic legislators.

Third, Democrats have failed to offer incremental reforms, even though it has been clear that nothing comprehensive is viable. If the White House was sincere about wanting to work together, indeed to lead, then it should describe a handful of smaller policies that would work as legislation. Where are the private meetings on incremental legislation? Where is the outreach to top staffers in the House and Senate to craft a small, consensus bill that has 90% support (say on STEM graduates). Where is the effort to re-establish a functioning legislative process?  Nowhere.

To recap: President Obama was elected in 2008 and sworn into office in January 2009. For the next two years, Democrats controlled the Senate and House of Representatives. No bill on immigration reform appears to have been considered by Nancy Pelosi’s House of Representative or the Senate during that time. Eighteen months after the 2010 elections, in mid-2012, President Obama took executive action via the DACA memorandum, an action that could be seen as fomenting an influx of undocumented children. In mid-2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill despite widely acknowledged resistance among House Republicans. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) ruled out anything less than the whole comprehensive bill, a position never rebuked by the White House. The White House today says that the lack of a vote in Boehner’s House, unlike the lack of a vote in Pelosi’s House, has forced his hand.

What one sees is a White House taking executive action on immigration five months before an election. It happened in 2012. It is happening in 2014. Coincidence?

When the President neglected to offer any vision of compromise today, one suspects that he has none.

 

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