Obama takes action on immigration: Did it have to come to this?

President and Congress missed chances for progress

WASHINGTON, D.C. - They say making laws is like making sausage, not something you want to see.

Well, making immigration policy (and I use the word loosely) has been like bunion surgery, not something you can even bear to peek at.

Maybe I have seen an issue handled with less class and sense, but I sure can’t recall.  Shakespeare’s curse to the Montague and Capulet families can’t be improved on: A plague on both your houses.

First, the sins of the House of Obama.

Comprehensive immigration reform, giving illegal immigrants long in the U.S. a path to citizenship and treating them with a modicum of decency was a defining promise of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. And his 2012 campaign, as he could not get any legislation through Congress.  But he did manage to deport about 400,000 immigrants a year, not that the Republicans are impressed.

Finally, the Senate passed what was considered “comprehensive” reform last year.  But it died in the House.  The president vowed he would do as much as he could through executive action since Congress abdicated its role. That makes sense.

Then he waited. And waited. And waited until his party got stomped in November’s midterm elections and the voters made a clear statement that they disliked both of the American political parties and their constant feuding.

This proffered a moment of opportunity, a moment for an olive branch, an effort, even if token, to take the word “bipartisan” out of Plategory – the place where platitudes and high-sounding BS live.

But no.  This had to be the moment for executive action on immigration.  After breaking a promise and letting down a community for six years, it suddenly became necessary to act. 

“If we don’t act, the dire situation of undocumented immigrants will only get worse, families will continue to be torn apart, people will continue to live in the shadows,” Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said. More dire than six months ago? A year ago?

Obama’s actions will not be any kind of permanent amnesty.  It will not apply to many categories of undocumented people in America. It does not give the people it does cover tax credits to get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

The administration made its intentions known in a leak to Fox News last week. 

“EXCLUSIVE: President Obama is planning to unveil a 10-part plan for overhauling U.S. immigration policy via executive action -- including suspending deportations for millions -- as early as next Friday, a source close to the White House told Fox News.”

Why would the Administration leak this to their cuddly friends and allies at Fox News?  That’s easy: to goad the most obnoxious Republicans into ugliness that would alienate Hispanics, minorities and the majority of Americans who support reform and a path to citizenship and dignity for law-abiding immigrants, like all our ancestors.

The political trap he set has worked perfectly.

Which brings us to the sins of the House of Boehner and McConnell.

After years of delay, Republicans in the Senate did join Democrats in passing important legislation.  And House Republicans spiked it.  Any claims that they were interested in passing a real bill lost all credibility.  They cared about having an issue, not a law.

There are genuine splits in the party but the side that won is the side that preys and panders to people who resent immigrants.  It isn’t a lot more complicated than that.

And that side of the party is going bananas now that the president has done what he said a million times he would do. Mostly they’ve toned down that nativist nasty talk and focused on the imperial overreach of Emperor Obama. Mostly.

Outgoing House Republican Michelle Bachmann warned that Obama would turn illegals into “illiterate” Democratic voters.

Senator Ted Cruz, with Gingrichian flourish, proclaims Obama is using “the tactics of a monarch.”

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said that the president was “provoking a constitutional crisis.”

“Mr. Obama is about to commit an act of constitutional infamy. This is a stain that will stay with him,” Peter Wehner wrote in Commentary.

Not to be outdone, Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama told Slate, "At some point, you have to evaluate whether the president's conduct aids or abets, encourages, or entices foreigners to unlawfully cross into the United States. That has a five-year in-jail penalty associated with it."

“The country’s going to go nuts, because they’re going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president, and it’s going to be a very serious situation,” Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said in an interview with USA Today. “You could see violence.”

Republican governors said they wouldn’t give driver’s licenses to people covered by Obama’s imperialism. Republican Governor Paul LePage of Maine, “I am fighting it, not helping it.”

This is not music to the ears of many Republican elders.  Many believe in real reform as much as Obama does. Big business wants immigration reform.  And Hispanics and other minorities do vote in elections, some remember.  And their populations are growing while anti-immigration demographic is shrinking.

In other words, rabid rhetoric on immigration is bad politics for the national party. “That’s the trouble with having some of these new young punks around here. They ought to listen to us old geezers,” Senator John McCain said.

“The president wants to see an angry and intemperate response, thinking the Republicans will do something that leads to a shutdown,” Republican House member Charlie Dent said. “Don’t take the bait and don’t have a hysterical reaction.”

It would be hard for the reactions so far to have been more hysterical.

Maybe that will give the Democrats some ephemeral partisan advantage some day. But it’s an ugly game.

The president said one thing in his speech Thursday that is surely true, “Because for all the back-and-forth of Washington, we have to remember that this debate is about something bigger. It’s about who we are as a country, and who we want to be for future generations.”

Those who adamantly oppose immigration reform, who oppose a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and who stoke the flames of nativism do indeed have a very different vision of America and the other side, in both parties.

Whether that will be even vaguely apparent in what the president euphemistically called the “back-and-forth of Washington” – the shouting matches about executive power, legal precedent and who gets a driver’s license – is doubtful.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Have race relations improved under Obama?]

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