Last year’s push for immigration reform began with a burst of optimism and bipartisan momentum for change. This week, it’s ending in an explosion of bitter recriminations and nakedly partisan maneuvering from all sides.
On Saturday, the White House announced it would delay a planned reboot of the administration’s immigration policies until after the election, going back on President Obama’s explicit June pledge to act before the end of the summer.
To its credit, the administration didn’t even pretend the decision had anything to do with policy. What had changed was the politics. Democrats are fighting to hold onto the Senate, and almost every close race is in a conservative-leaning state where Republicans would seize on new deportation protections to tear down their opponent. Thanks to an influx of Central American minors at the border, the issue of enforcement and security has become more politically charged as well.
“The reality the President has had to weigh is that we’re in the midst of the political season, and because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the President believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections,” a White House official told reporters on Saturday.
Supporters of immigration reform were split over the delay. The major groups were adamant Obama should stick to his schedule, but some activists and commentators were worried about potential blowback if Democrats lost the Senate and a sweeping move by Obama to halt deportations bore the blame. Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist NDN/New Policy Institute and a longtime reform advocate called Obama's decision a "pragmatic recognition" of the circumstances.
It's hard to imagine anyone on either side was happy with how the White House handled the delay, however. Those who favored punting on executive action until after the election were left holding the bag for Obama’s decision to unnecessarily set a summer deadline for action. And those who had been lobbying the White House for months and years to protect families from being torn apart by deportation were apoplectic he had gone back on his word.
“We are bitterly disappointed in the President and we are bitterly disappointed in the Senate Democrats,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said in a statement. “We advocates didn’t make the reform promise; we just made the mistake of believing it.”
Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, declared that Obama was "cementing his legacy as the Deporter-in-Chief" while National Council of La Raza president Janet Murguia warned "the dreams they have shattered today will haunt them far into the future."
While the White House bowed to raw political calculations in making its decision, some Republican officials demonstrated at least as much cynicism as they tried to gloss over their own immigration position to capitalize on Latino voters’ anger over the delay.
“The President's empty rhetoric and broken promises are a slap in the face to millions of Hispanics across the country,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Ruth Guerra said in a statement reacting to Saturday’s announcement. “This is more evidence that Democrats never really wanted to fix our immigration system when Republicans were sitting at the table. Immigration reform will continue to be the President's biggest failure as long as he keeps playing politics and refuses to work with Republicans.”
Reading the RNC’s response, one would have no idea that Republican leaders publicly killed immigration reform talks themselves. One might even assume Republicans were upset with this “slap in the face” and “empty rhetoric” because they supported deportation relief. In fact, Republican lawmakers had gone so far as to float impeachment or a possible shutdown if Obama had gone through with his original plan. Speaker John Boehner made the House GOP’s position clear in his own response to Saturday’s news, telling reporters that "[t]here is a never a 'right' time for the president to declare amnesty by executive action.”
The RNC’s line about “sitting at the table” with Obama was especially misleading. Obama first announced his intention to move forward with executive actions on June 30. Why that day? Because Boehner had just informed him by phone that the House would not take up any major immigration legislation at all that year, even bills that included only Republican-supported measures. As a result there was never a “table” for Obama to leave — House leaders sat on the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill for a year then announced they wouldn’t even bother to make a counteroffer. A major reason immigration groups pushed so hard for executive action was that they assumed Republicans wouldn't negotiate after the elections either and thus had nothing to lose by provoking them.
“The GOP, the party that has blocked meaningful comprehensive immigration reform at every turn and sued the President for acting, is now outraged that he hasn't taken steps that many in their party deemed impeachable offenses,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said in a statement.
This is not to say Republicans didn’t have legitimate reason to be upset over the delay.
GOP lawmakers are almost universally opposed to any hypothetical effort by the White House to extend new protections to undocumented immigrants. House Republicans even voted recently to strip DREAMers, who had been brought to the country illegally as children, of existing protections the White House granted them in 2012. If, as the White House had made clear, a major policy change was still imminent, Republicans wanted a to have a chance to argue it in front of voters before the election.
"What's so cynical about today's immigration announcement is that the President isn't saying he'll follow the law — he's just saying he'll go around the law once it's too late for Americans to hold his party accountable in the November elections,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
Whether one agreed with McConnell on the policy merits or not, he and Republicans like Boehner who issued similar complaints could at least articulate a genuine disagreement with the White House.
For a moment immigration reform looked like the rare legislative item that might overcome the polarization, gamesmanship, and finger pointing that’s characterized almost every other policy debate in recent years. Instead, Saturday confirmed that it’s the most powerful example yet of the same trends.