President Obama pulled a switcheroo on immigration policy this week when he decided to delay a review of executive action that would have made deportations “more humane.”
In March, the president asked the Department of Homeland Security to review deportation policy, and leaks suggested that an announcement of reforms was imminent. As with another executive action on immigration in 2012, Obama was expected to take steps to ease the record level of deportations reported by the administration.
So why the delay?
The reason the administration gives is that he wants to keep a window of opportunity open for immigration reform in Congress. The GOP-controlled House has so far refused to vote on the issue and has made it known than any chances for immigration reform this year will die if Obama acts on his own again.
Republicans bristle at presidential executive actions such as the one announced two years ago that allows certain children of illegal immigrants to apply for their deportation to be deferred. GOP House members say Obama is unilaterally making law and probably violating the Constitution. The White House counters that it is simply setting priorities and using prosecutorial discretion.
With the new executive action looming, Republicans have said, “ ‘We’ll walk away from the table; there will be no chances of enacting comprehensive immigration reform,’ ” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, who has been deeply involved in trying to forge bipartisan immigration reform in the House. “The president said, ‘OK, I’ll give you an opportunity.’ ”
But the president has only opened the window a crack – if that.
Does he really think the House will act? Highly unlikely, says political observer Norman Ornstein.
The Republican base is not clamoring for immigration reform and many conservatives strongly oppose it, seeing a potential pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as "amnesty." That's a disincentive for Republicans to act before this fall's election.
For example, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia is sending out mailers boasting of his role in stopping Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid "pushing amnesty to give illegal aliens a free ride,” even while he has been spearheading a GOP effort at immigration reform in the House behind the scenes.
So Obama's delay could be part of a political strategy to unveil his executive action later this year with greater effect. The president could come back in August or September and pronounce that he has bent doubly and triply over backwards, and so now is going to put his reforms in place, says Mr. Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank in Washington. “That will resonate powerfully with his base.”
Yet the waffling could also be Obama being Obama, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “This reflects the continued ambivalence and unwillingness of President Obama to move forward on this issue, either through legislation or executive action. He might see a window for reform in the summer, or he still might be hesitant to be more aggressive on the issue that has languished for much of his administration.”
Another factor could be that Obama is protecting vulnerable Democrats. “He is aware that any action on this can trigger a strong backlash in vulnerable Democratic states and districts, and motivate Republican voters to come out in larger numbers,” Mr. Zelizer says.
What the country simply needs is “a fair, improved process,” he says. It “should be implemented to benefit the people as quickly and as soon as possible.”