Esther Cepeda: The immigration reform stall
CHICAGO -- If the current standoff on immigration reform isn't the very model of Washington intractability, I don't know what is.
Let's understand the moment: President Obama delayed the Department of Homeland Security's review to determine what the administration can do by way of executive action so that Republicans can have the space they need to pass their own reform package this summer, maybe.
This happened on the same day the news broke that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's re-election campaign had sent out mailers highlighting his role in “stopping the Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty.”
Perhaps Obama's move is a brilliantly Manichaean strategy to ensure that, once the Republicans again fail to agree to any immigration reform that will douse Latino voter ire, he can swoop in with crowd-pleasing deferrals of his administration's historic rate of deportations. Or, maybe it's just plain stupid.
Recently I would have bet the Obama administration would soon be using the DHS review as a platform for announcing some expansive executive decision that would also, coincidentally, please his Latino and immigrant supporters. The increasingly hysterical prognostications that the Democrats are going to get buried in the upcoming midterm elections were gaining traction.
As recently as May 15, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was on PBS' “NewsHour” assuring viewers that the controversial Secure Communities program—in which local law enforcement authorities work with federal immigration officials on removal cases—required a “fresh start” and that he had “talked to a number of individuals, concerned groups about the potential for expanding the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program, revising our removal priorities.”
But Johnson followed this with a firm, “And I would say that we have to be careful not to pre-empt Congress in certain areas. They are the lawmakers. Whatever we do in the executive branch, we have to do within the confines of existing law.” This sounded like a disclaimer that things could still go either way.
Now it seems unavoidable that, ultimately, neither party will do anything to pass immigration reform.
If the disappointment expressed by avowed Obama acolytes is any indication, even a 180-degree turn from giving Republicans time to compromise—and pivoting to, for instance, suspending all deportation activity—will harm not only the president but all Democrats for some time to come.
The frustration palpable in the parade of exhausted and outraged statements that flowed out of some of the largest immigrant advocacy organizations was damning.
“The president says that he is giving House Republicans enough space to pass immigration reform in this session of Congress,” says Lawrence Benito, CEO of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “But for thousands of families who will be torn apart in the coming weeks, simply hoping House Republicans will act on immigration reform is nothing more than an empty promise.”
Other statements spoke of Republicans' ongoing baseless excuses but, most often, reflected deep disappointment that the Obama administration is taking seemingly regressive steps.
“Dreamers,” those young activists who might have been eligible for relief under the proposed Dream Act but then vowed to fight for deportation relief for all unlawfully present immigrants, were especially furious.
“It is a betrayal to the community to try to give the White House cover,” Lorella Praeli, director of policy and advocacy with United We Dream, told BuzzFeed, referring to advocacy organizations who urged the Obama administration to continue pursuing a bipartisan legislative compromise.
“It is a betrayal to say we're going to put your lives on hold and continue to risk you and your family and give space to Republicans who have yet to show up on this issue. Both parties have played politics with our families for too long and any advocacy organization that is complicit with that has to be held accountable.”
It would be simplistic to believe this tenuous and unsatisfying set of left-right strategic ploys could end up having a fully positive outcome for anyone.
A moderate Republican compromise on some of the thorniest immigration points—such as a wide-ranging legalization—would roil an already divided party and, worse, sow an even angrier brand of anti-immigrant rhetoric going into the 2016 elections. And an Obama deferred-action-for-everyone scheme will leave Latinos with the foul taste that comes with being used as political pawns.
And everyone else? They'll have justification for distrusting politicians and Washington even more.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.