Obama’s “Lincoln Moment”: Will He Take Bold Action to Limit Immigrant Deportations?

June 11, 2014

By Victor C Johnson

In 1862, during the darkest days for the Union, President Lincoln faced a momentous decision. He wanted to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in the Confederate states. Many counseled against it, fearing that the time was not right: It would prolong the war, fracture Lincoln’s coalition in Congress, and have other adverse consequences. It was far from clear that the “team of rivals” that comprised the president’s Cabinet would support such an action. But Lincoln was convinced, in his own mind, that emancipation was not only the right thing to do, but would in fact have positive strategic consequences for the war effort. Late that year, buoyed by victories on the battlefield, Lincoln informed—not consulted, but informed—his Cabinet of his decision, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863.

President Barack Obama now confronts his “Lincoln moment”: Will he emulate this greatest of American presidents? Will he take bold executive action to address an injustice of his administration: the record deportations of undocumented immigrants? That this would be the right thing to do is unquestionable. The administration is more concerned about the politics: Would it be strategic, or would it actually work against immigration reform? If we think clearly about these issues, as Lincoln did in the case of emancipation, we will see that executive action on deportations is not detrimental to immigration reform, but would, if anything, actually help reform. Why is this the case?

Republican action on immigration reform is essentially unrelated to Obama’s enforcement actions.

At the highest level of generality, some issues are simple. Below that level, they can become complex very quickly. If we lose sight of, or fail to understand, the essence of an issue, we can get lost in the complexity.

Immigration reform is such an issue. As I have argued for the past 18 months, the Republican Party will abandon its anti-immigration posture on the day it decides that its anti-immigration stance no longer works for it politically. Public opinion strongly favors comprehensive immigration reform, and a majority in Congress understands that reform is necessary and would vote for it tomorrow if a vote were permitted. Why, then, has there not been a vote in the House? Because the Republican Party, which controls the House, is still engaged in an internal battle over what kind of party it will be following its defeat in the last presidential election. Specifically, will it be a national party that reaches out to Hispanics (and other demographics that it has abandoned) in order to be competitive in presidential elections, or will it remain a congressional party whose base consists of conservative white males? Sooner or later, the proponents of a national party will win that debate, and immigration reform will happen. In a very real sense, that’s all there is to it. It’s a simple issue.

Thus administrative action by the president will have little, if any, effect on prospects for congressional action. Republicans will act, or not, based on their calculations of what is politically necessary, not because of what the president does. The rest of it is political rhetoric.

President Obama’s “trustworthiness” is an excuse for Republican inaction, not the cause of it.

House Speaker John Boehner is in an unenviable position. He probably understands the necessity for acting on immigration reform, but a vocal minority of his party strongly opposes reform. Most House Republicans probably agree with the speaker, but few want to be asked to stand up for their beliefs in today’s political climate. These pressures will intensify following Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in Tuesday’s primary. In this situation, the speaker’s practice throughout the current Congress has been to bounce around between these opposing pressures, occasionally seeming to make moves to advance immigration reform, but then backing off when attacked, and trying to displace the blame for doing so onto others.

Early this year, Boehner released a statement of principles to guide immigration reform that the party had adopted at its January retreat. These principles were immediately savaged by his anti-immigration wing and its allies outside Congress, and Boehner retreated. He needed an excuse for not moving to implement his own principles, and a convenient one was available that supported the larger Republican narrative about Obama and his presidency: We cannot pass immigration reform legislation because we cannot trust Obama to enforce the laws we pass. Republicans dutifully repeat this mantra to this day. Because the mantra is independent of anything Obama actually does, it will continue whether or not he takes executive action on immigration reform, so long as it serves the speaker’s political needs. Once the speaker decides that he has to move on immigration reform, he will find new rhetoric to justify that.

Obama’s claim that he lacks authority to limit deportations is as disingenuous as are Republican excuses for inaction on immigration reform.

The president has rather cavalierly dismissed pleas for administrative relief from deportations on the grounds that he lacks legal authority. He does not—in fact, he has already exercised it. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a directive three years ago that, in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, deportations of those with serious criminal offenses would be prioritized and the department would not target longstanding noncriminal residents with families here. DHS has not applied its own guidelines consistently; the president should direct DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to do so. The president also provided Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); under the same authority, he could expand deferred action to include most if not all who would be eligible for relief under pending legislation. The president unquestionably has the authority to take such actions; there is consensus in the legal community that the president has broad authority when it comes to enforcing the law. The president’s deference to House Republicans obviously has not produced action; he should drop the legalistic fig leaf and proceed in his own and the country’s interest.

By letting the deportation issue fester, Obama takes the pressure off Republicans to tackle immigration reform.

To change course on deportations would not only be more in accord with the president’s values, it would actually make reform legislation more likely, not less. The Republicans will have to join in reforming our immigration system and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants because they cannot continue to alienate Hispanics indefinitely. That is the reform community’s pressure point against the congressional Republicans, and it has applied this pressure very skillfully. But the Democrats cannot assume that they have the Hispanics in their pocket. To win votes, you have to compete for them. Taking voters for granted is the surest way to lose them. If you don’t believe me, ask Eric Cantor.

Obama’s job approval rating among Hispanics has already dropped from 72 percent in 2013 to 51 percent this year, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings Institution survey. If the president continues to alienate Hispanics, through record deportations and seeming indifference to the consequences for Hispanic families, then Hispanics can—and likely will—say “A plague on both your houses,” and just stay home on Election Day. It happens all the time. Why are House Republicans so vehement that administrative action by the president in this area is unacceptable? Because the longer the deportations continue, the less pressure there is on them. House Republicans love seeing Hispanics angry with and pressuring the White House instead of them. Once the president re-invigorates Hispanic support for him by doing the right thing on deportations, all the pressure is back on House Republicans to stop blocking the fundamental reform that only legislation can provide. This will be good for immigrant families, good for immigration reform, and good for President Obama.

The case for relief from deportations through executive action is overwhelming. At this point, it’s a question of when, and how much.

Senator Schumer has asked the administration to give the House until the August recess to act on immigration reform legislation before announcing executive action. To the understandable consternation of some in the immigration community, the White House has signaled its assent. I understand the consternation. I wish we could stop splitting up families today. But the White House made the right call. When your biggest champion in Congress says wait until August, you wait until August.

The other question is: When the president acts, will he act boldly, or will he engage his penchant for trying to do just enough to mollify the Hispanics, but not enough to enrage the Republicans? If he tries the latter, he will fail. There is no such action.

Absent House action, the president should on August 1, announce sweeping reforms to his deportation regime, such that deportations would be deferred for undocumented immigrants who would be eligible for legal status under pending comprehensive immigration reform legislation that has been blocked for a year by the House leadership. These are largely longtime residents with no criminal convictions outside of immigration law and with families in and ties to American communities. The president needs to model himself after Lincoln, one of the transformational presidents that he aspires to be. It is time for him to be bold, and end this scourge of Hispanic (and other immigrant) families.

Of course, the Republicans will scream, “That’s the end of reform!” But to say you’re going to refuse to do what you aren’t doing anyway is not much of a sanction. And House Republicans will still face the knowledge that to be a competitive national party, they must find a way to enable the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. Remember: Everything else is rhetoric.

Find out more about NAFSA’s immigration policy agenda at www.nafsa.org/immigration.


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