He undermined bipartisan attempts at comprehensive immigration reform from 2005 through 2007 as a Senator. He broke his promise to introduce immigration reforms in his first term, and used election-year executive action in a cynical ploy for Latino votes. Now, the New York Times reports, President Barack Obama is about to push for new immigration legislation, using his State of the Union address and his new political clout.
Most of the work–as usual–has been done by others. Senators from both parties have been hammering out the details of a comprehensive approach, the Times reports–one that Democrats insist must include a “path to citizenship.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has made immigration reform a priority, insists that legislation must be passed piece by piece; Democrats are insisting on a one-shot, all-inclusive, up-or-down vote.
President Obama has not proposed a plan, but will soon, says the Times:
The White House will argue that its solution for illegal immigrants is not an amnesty, as many critics insist, because it would include fines, the payment of back taxes and other hurdles for illegal immigrants who would obtain legal status, the officials said.
The president’s plan would also impose nationwide verification of legal status for all newly hired workers; add visas to relieve backlogs and allow highly skilled immigrants to stay; and create some form of guest-worker program to bring in low-wage immigrants in the future.
That plan would be similar to the one that Obama undermined in 2005-6, when he objected to guest-worker provisions in a bill crafted by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). As McCain aide Mark Salter recalled in 2011:
A bipartisan group of senators supporting the bill formed an informal caucus to help guide it successfully through Senate debate. They met every morning in a room just off the Senate chamber to discuss plans for defending the bill from amendments that would reduce its chances of passage. Then-Sen. Barack Obama asked to join in those discussions.
As an aide to McCain, I was in the room for every one of those meetings. It was my first opportunity to observe Obama closely. During those meetings, I never saw him engage in any discussion concerned with building a majority vote in favor of the legislation. In the meetings he attended, he would draw from his shirt pocket a 3×5 index card, on which he had written changes he insisted be made to the bill before he would support it. They were invariably the same demands made by the AFL-CIO, which was intent on watering down or killing the guest-worker provisions. Republicans and Democrats alike were irritated by his transparently self-interested behavior, but tried to negotiate with him. He remained adamant in his positions and unwilling to compromise.
Two years later, Salter recalls, Obama “not only refused to oppose the amendments that would hurt the bill’s chances of passage, but actually sponsored some of them. His actions were not the only cause of the immigration reform’s failure to pass the Senate that year, but they certainly contributed to it.” The late Robert Novak reported that Obama cast the decisive vote for an amendment ending a temporary worker program that unions opposed; in so doing, Obama ensured the failure of the overall reform effort.
The failure of the 2005-6 and 2007 reform efforts–i.e. in both a Republican-controlled and Democrat-controlled Congress–produced a national consensus that immigration reform had to be preceded by meaningful efforts at border security. President Obama not only failed to tighten security–sending a token presence of 1200 National Guard troops–but actively undermined security by opposing Arizona’s aggressive immigration law, and by initiating Operation Fast and Furious, a botched gun-running operation into Mexico. His only gesture at reform was a speech in El Paso in 2011 devoted to a partisan attack against Republicans–an attack whose viciousness is captured by the White House’s own transcript of the event:
THE PRESIDENT: So, here’s the point. I want everybody to listen carefully to this. We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: They’re racist!
THE PRESIDENT: You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they’re going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they’ll want a higher fence. Maybe they’ll need a moat. (Laughter.) Maybe they want alligators in the moat. (Laughter.) They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.
Subsequently, the President introduced no policy or legislative proposals to back up his bravado, and cut back dramatically on law enforcement in 2012 with an end to deportations of those who arrived as minors–one enacted by executive fiat, not through the legislative process, in defiance of his oath to the Constitution.
Today, two factors have potentially tipped the scales in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, even without improved border security. One is the fact that immigration across the Mexican border has slowed dramatically, due to the stagnant economic recovery over which Obama has presided.
The other factor is the steep decline in Republican fortunes among Latino voters, leading some in the GOP to conclude the immigration issue is one that the party must try to put behind it by yielding ground on enforcement.
The political wisdom of such conclusions is dubious; Republicans did worse, not better, among Latino voters after President Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty for illegal immigrants in 1986. Yet Republicans seem committed to doing “something”; House Speaker John Boehner and influential conservative radio and television host Sean Hannity have both lent their support to passing new immigration reform legislation.
One thing is certain: such legislation might have passed already but for the deliberate, partisan, and cynical opposition of a junior Senator from Illinois who was eager to do Big Labor’s bidding, and who wanted the issue preserved as a grievance for his party to exploit in subsequent elections.
Having done so, Obama is now in a position to emerge as the potential–though undeserving–pioneer in comprehensive immigration reform.