Immigration reform amounts to chump change
But any reasonable voter who actually thinks this is a meaningful and substantive move by Obama is, frankly, a chump.
Obama has told Hispanic audiences time and again that he feels “very strongly” about immigration reform. But, in fact, he has never spent much of his limited political capital on it.
As a U.S. senator, before having to worry about a nationwide Latino vote on Election Day, he voted for legislation such as the 2006 Secure Fence Act and a proposal to establish English as the “national unifying language”—angering large segments of the Hispanic population.
In 2007, the last time there was a real effort to pass bipartisan immigration reform, he supported a change—requiring illegal immigrants to return to their home countries to apply for legal U.S. status—that basically torpedoed the fragile compromise.
As president, he ignored his promise to Hispanic and immigrant supporters to shepherd through immigration reform in his first year and went on to deport immigrants at a record pace. In May 2011, Obama traveled to the southern border to give a speech in which he said his hands were tied because of Congress and that advocates weren’t really doing enough to push Republicans into a compromising frame of mind.
“This change ultimately has to be driven by you, the American people,” Obama said, just a few moments after declaring, for the first of many times: “Sometimes when I talk to immigration advocates, they wish I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that’s not how a democracy works. What we really need to do is to keep up the fight to pass genuine, comprehensive reform.”
In an election year, “how a democracy works” apparently matters little to an incumbent grasping at any straws that could give him an edge toward victory in November.
So last Friday, the president pulled an end run over the same Congress that had, in December 2010, shot down the DREAM Act in a bipartisan manner and announced “deferred action” for young people.
Those younger than 31 who were brought to the U.S. as children, don’t present risks to national security or public safety, and meet several key criteria will be considered for relief from removal and not be put into deportation proceedings. If applicants can prove their qualifications, they’ll get legal status—not legal permanent residency—for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and will be eligible to apply for work authorization.
Set aside the folly of introducing anywhere between 800,000 and 1.4 million young people into an already strained higher education system, a military that has few openings, and the worst jobs situation for workers younger than 25 in recent history. And set aside the distasteful nature of a move that is nothing more than naked political pandering. The real question is: Will it actually help young illegal immigrants whose lives hang in the balance?
There is no reason to believe so, and here’s why.
In June 2011, the Obama administration responded to the outcry over stepped-up deportations by instituting a program to use “prosecutorial discretion” to concentrate limited law enforcement resources on the worst-of-the worst illegal immigrants.
Under the program—most people remember it as the “Morton memo”—more than 400,000 cases would be reviewed and immigrants residing here illegally who were deemed not a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enforcement “priority” would have their cases closed and be conferred a limbo status of still-illegal but not deportable.
Guess how well this has worked out.
Not only has the number of deported noncriminal illegal immigrants gone up, just a few weeks ago the American Immigration Lawyers Association released data showing that after seven months of review, DHS officials have closed only 4,400 cases—about 1.5 percent. And nearly a third of all cases haven’t yet been reviewed due to the tremendous backlog the agency has been carrying for years. At the current rate, it would take about 54 years to close all 400,000 cases.
Based on the statistics, it’s clear that Obama’s shortsighted campaign stunt isn’t a joyous exclamation point for illegal immigrant youth or Hispanic voters—it’s really no more than another worrisome question mark.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.