At first glance, President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that he intends to usurp the authority of the United States Congress on immigration reform seems counter-intuitive.
Though immigration reform has been a top goal on the left for years, this is not the way to go about it. While it might please immigration activists, Obama’s taking action on his own will only infuriate Republicans, who increased their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and took the majority in the U.S. Senate. By taking action on his own, the president is making any sort of deal on immigration reform increasingly unlikely with the new Congress.
Obama knew all of this full well months ago, of course, even as he was planning this new policy. He knew that he couldn’t do much (if anything) on his own — he even said so repeatedly, publicly. Indeed, by taking action unilaterally, he is completely reversing himself on the issue, just as he did on the individual mandate after the 2008 campaign. He knew that taking unilateral action would be unpopular — that’s why he put it off until after the November elections. Obama knew all of this because, despite his many faults as a leader, he is an excellent politician.
So, knowing all this, why would Obama take this action now? Why would he sabotage a potential immigration reform deal with an executive action that can have, at most, limited effect?
Obama has never made true immigration reform — reform that fixes our broken system, that increases border security while making legal immigration easier — a real priority for his administration. If he had, he wouldn’t have found it difficult to locate willing partners in Congress in both parties. Republicans like Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have all expressed support for some form of immigration reform. They all have different ideas, of course, but this is how legislating works: You reconcile those different ideas to get things done. The last time the issue came before Congress, the biggest difference was one of strategy: Senate Democrats wanted an omnibus bill while House Republicans wanted to consider reforms individually.
Surely, this is the type of hurdle that a serious commitment from the White House could overcome. These types of discussions begin by bringing both sides to the table to engage in serious talks. We saw the White House attempt this with Boehner over deficit reduction. Discussions on a grand bargain were apparently well underway before those efforts collapsed. Yet, negotiations over immigration reform have never reached the same level. Why not?
The simple answer is that Obama doesn’t want immigration reform, not really. He knows that nationwide, it’s been one of the issues that Democrats have used successfully against the GOP, time and time again. They’ve been able to portray any legitimate concern about illegal immigration as racism, as an attack on immigration generally — and all too often Republicans have played into their hand.
Obama doesn’t want to fix our broken immigration system. He doesn’t want to give Republicans who control Congress a chance to take credit for a grand bargain on the issue. Rather than trying to overcome differences and striving to succeed, he’s determined to see efforts at comprehensive reform fail. He wants to continue to use it as a wedge issue. He’s not taking executive action to help families, not really. Instead, he’s taking executive action to preserve a campaign bullet point for the Democratic Party.
That’s the kind of leadership we have right now.