President Barack Obama’s vow to use unilateral action to address some U.S. immigration challenges is disappointing because it is a nakedly political maneuver designed to benefit his fellow Democrats in this election cycle. It has significant, negative repercussions for policy, too.
By declaring that he will take this executive action, the president has basically killed whatever chance there is of passing a permanent immigration solution, not just this year, but in 2015 and beyond.
He has used a similar gambit before. In the 2012 campaign, his administration unilaterally deferred deportation proceedings against individuals brought to the U.S. illegally as children. This killed discussions over immigration legislation that had been taking place between a bipartisan group of senators, including Republican Marco Rubio of Florida.
As House Speaker John Boehner has made clear, Republicans don’t trust Obama to enforce the laws as written. And they already think the president has far overstepped his constitutional limits in many areas. With his latest maneuver, he has all but guaranteed that any Republican who had even entertained supporting an immigration bill will turn and run in the opposite direction.
Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around for the death of the legislation this year. House Republicans had a golden opportunity to put Obama in a difficult position by sending him their preferred solutions, which would have bolstered Republicans’ image among Latino voters and rebutted the claim that the only thing they know how to do is to say no. Instead, they opted to not even consider the Senate-passed bill and left themselves open to some of the attacks that Obama and other Democrats leveled at them.
But the president also failed to champion reforms, including a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million immigrants here illegally, and has instead watched the challenges grow substantially in his five years in office. Indeed, his complaint that House Republicans haven’t acted is galling, since Democrats were firmly in control of Congress in his first two years in office, and during the 2008 campaign, he had promised to address immigration reform during his first year in office.
Even if there is merit in some of what he is trying to do now, such as addressing border-security questions raised by the thousands of Central American children trying to cross the U.S. border, he could have found common cause on these problems with enough Congressional Republicans to pass bipartisan legislation.
Presidents must lead -- and that doesn’t mean going over the heads of Congress once things get hard. It means cajoling, negotiating, compromising and, yes, working together with people with whom you have fundamental disagreements. Unilateral action should not be the first resort for a president who failed to put in the hard work that might have made permanent and bipartisan reform possible.
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Lanhee J Chen
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