RIP: Immigration Reform

“Elections have consequences.” This truism is acknowledged by both winners and losers in the wake of an election, as they survey the changed political landscape. Unfortunately, for about half a dozen elections now, there is one group of people for whom no election seems to have consequences, the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently live in the United States. Win or lose, their plight is never sufficient to coerce the nation’s politicians into effective action.

There is plenty of blame to go around on the issue but any equivalence in assigning that blame is a false equivalence. The problem is the Republicans – their base and their leaders in the U.S. House. The Senate-passed comprehensive immigration bill has been sitting on Speaker John Boehner’s desk for over a year. He, and everyone else, knows that there are enough votes in the House to pass the bill and send it to the president. Boehner has only to bring it to the floor. He has refused to do so and there is no sign that he intends to bring it up in the lame duck Congress.

To be clear, the Senate passed measure is not perfect. No piece of complex, compromise legislation satisfies everyone, which is more or less how all compromises work. The final bill passed with 68 votes. That is more than is needed to override a veto. Nothing gets 68 votes in the bitterly divided Senate but the comprehensive immigration bill for 68 votes. Voters say that they are tired of the partisanship and gridlock in Washington and I cannot think of a bill in recent years that has garnered such bipartisan support and demonstrated, in a truly admirable way, the ability of members of Congress to work through the gridlock and achieve a respectable compromise.

Unfortunately, Speaker Boehner has a restive caucus and so he has placed his own political ease before the dire plight of 11 million people. He is a politician and we have been warned for a couple of millennia now: “Put not your trust in princes.” Still, the next time he says anything, absolutely anything, about being a pro-family values Republican, someone should ask if only the families of Anglos or those with papers count. Our current immigration system separates parents from their children, husbands from wives, keeps parents in a precarious economic situation in which they can be easily exploited and, therefore, unable to provide for the children. Where are the pro-family values in that? To be clear, I would not deny Mr. Boehner communion, but if I were his confessor, we would have a long, long talk.

The president’s sins are different and they are real but less morally repugnant. He, too, is a politician and not a very good one, so he has not been able to find a way to push through a measure that is overwhelmingly supported by the American people. I am sure the president cares about the fate of immigrants, and I am sure he is convinced that the current system is not good for the country either. The fact that the issue is pretty good for his party is a bonus and in no way detracts from his other, more noble, motives.

President Obama toyed with the idea of taking executive action this past summer. It remains exactly what can be accomplished by executive action. It is a risky strategy, and not just for how the Republicans will respond. But, if he grants some kind of temporary reprieve to undocumented workers, and allows them to come out of the shadows and get some form of work authorization, what happens if an anti-immigrant candidate wins the presidency in 2016? Executive actions have a limited scope and can easily be overturned. Of course, if he was going to pursue this strategy, he should have done it before the election, not after. Now, it seems petulant, advancing a signature policy after you have just received a drubbing from the electorate.

In the event, the reason President Obama postponed action until after the election was because Senate Democrats running for re-election is conservative states asked him too. None of the senators won re-election anyway. It is better to lose for a good cause than to lose for no reason at all, but that is not the way Washington thinks. All sorts of rationales allow those who hold elective office to put their short-term political interests ahead of the common good. Indeed, the premise of our constitutional system counts on it: Few phrases run through the Federalist Papers more than “enlightened self-interest,” and enlightenment is in the eye of the beholder. But, a party cannot long hold the loyalties of the electorate if it is unwilling to stand for something. If the Democrats are not willing to win or lose an election because of their support for fixing our broken immigration system, they deserve to lose the election.

President Obama’s political skills are severely limited. He is very good at winning an election himself, but after that, which is no small accomplishment to be sure, his skills are less evident. It is unclear to me why he has not said, in simple terms, since the election: “I will give the Republicans one month to move on the Senate-passed, bipartisan legislation. The American people want it. It represents an exception to the law of gridlock. It is evidence of the kind of bipartisanship the country desperately needs. One month. After that, I will do what I can, limited though it may be, to improve the lives of these 11 million people or as many of them as an executive order can reach.” Put the ball back into their court. Keep the focus on the issue itself. Instead, by speaking in ways that are so convoluted I have trouble following him, and sounding tone-deaf to the fact that his party just got shellacked, he has allowed the GOP to keep the focus on executive overreach instead of congressional intransigence.

Eleven million Americans – and they are Americans in all but legal status – need help. Help is at hand. Unfortunately, the GOP’s internal politics and the president’s lack of political adroitness seem to have reached a perfect storm, frustrating any chance at improving what all agree is a miserable situation, for the immigrants and for the country. It is not just a shame, it is shameful.  

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