No, Mr President: Wait Some More On Immigration Reform


On the whole, I found the president’s presser yesterday reassuring. First off, it upset Ron Fournier and the usual Washington establishment types, which is a good sign. Second, his very affect – calm, upbeat, confident – is classic Obama. Third, his basic stance of asking the GOP to put up or shut up now they have majorities in both Senate and House is exactly the right move. It forces some kind of constructive proposal out of them and puts the onus on them to say – at long last – what they might be for instead of whom they are against. Or, more likely, it reveals the emptiness of their opposition and lack of a constructive policy agenda.

But it seems to me that this effective strategy is immediately undermined by his continuing to threaten unilateral executive action on immigration. The threat makes sense as a way to bring the GOP to the table, but not if he fully intends to follow through before the end of the year regardless. Instead of forcing the GOP to come up with a compromise bill – which if it can, great, and if it cannot, will split the GOP in two – he’d merely recast the debate around whether he is a “lawless dictator”, etc etc. rather than whether it is humane or rational to keep millions of people in illegal limbo indefinitely. It would strengthen those dead-ender factions in the House that are looking for an excuse to impeach. It would unify the GOP on an issue where it is, in fact, deeply divided. And it would not guarantee a real or durable solution to the clusterfuck.

Yes, he’s out on a limb with his supporters on this – and they punished him for it with low turnout on Tuesday. But he punted before the election and he could punt again. And the truth is: no real progress on this can be made without legislation, and the looming demographic challenges for the GOP in 2016 without any action on the issue makes some movement on this a sane move in the next six months, especially from the point of view of the donor class and business lobby.

In other words, it makes much more sense to me for Obama to ask the GOP for a major legislative proposal before he takes any unilateral action. If they fail to do so – and it’s perfectly possible they do, given intense divisions within their ranks – then Obama’s executive action makes much more sense and can be defended much more easily, as a response to Congressional failure. But to pre-empt this with a divisive act that would polarize the country still further would make no long-term progress likely and put the blame for gridlock on his shoulders, rather than the GOP’s. And what good would that do?

What I’m saying is that he should precisely “wait” some more before acting on this. He’s waited long enough to make another six months’ delay, while he demands a bill to sign, a perfectly palatable option. If he accepts another bucketload of efforts to secure the border as part of the deal, his position remains more popular than the GOP’s with the center and the Latino population. And the real goal of all this is legislation that can guarantee citizenship, better immigration criteria and a secure border beyond any president’s executive orders or revised regulations. Unilateralism can make that less likely rather than more.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama pauses during a press conference in the East Room of the White House November 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. By Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.)