Pessimism On Immigration Reform

[ Posted Thursday, July 1st, 2010 – 17:59 UTC ]

President Obama gave a speech today on immigration reform. He made his case, and pleaded with Congress to deliver up a comprehensive legislative package on the issue. But chances of this happening, as the old saw goes, are somewhere between "slim" and "none." Perhaps President Obama will achieve immigration reform at some point in his presidency, but I personally just don't see it happening any time soon.

Obama is, quite bluntly, becoming a victim of his own over-promising on the campaign trail. Obama told a lot of groups of people that their particular issue would be taken care of in his "first year in office," which then ran smack into the brick wall called the United States Senate. I believe (with nothing more to go on than a gut feeling, I have to admit) that Obama truly felt he could change the "politics as usual" nature of Washington, single-handedly. It turned out that Washington wasn't all that eager to change, which has delayed much of Obama's agenda far beyond when he had planned.

When Obama entered office, it quickly became apparent what his legislative priorities were. Not even counting the problems he inherited which were raging like a house on fire, and which needed immediate attention from him (two ongoing wars, and a collapsing economic picture), Obama's plan for the future was to push a "three-legged stool" of reforms. The imagery was that all three legs together would work, but if any one leg didn't, the whole thing would fall apart. His big three priorities were: healthcare reform, education reform, and a new energy policy for America. This prioritizing left many groups who voted for him dismayed, because Obama's promises of "in my first year" were obviously not going to be met. These groups included gay rights activists and immigration reform advocates, in particular.

Obama's first big legislative push to achieve his agenda wound up taking forever and a day. Getting healthcare reform passed was a monumental achievement politically (which you have to admit, no matter what you thought of the final product), but it absolutely consumed his first year in office. Since then, energy reform has stalled in the Senate, and some minor education reforms have been passed. Part of the problem, obviously, can be laid at the feet of issues which Obama personally had little or no control over, which ate up all the other free time Congress has had (such as Wall Street reform).

But even excusing all of that, immigration reform's progress (and gay rights progress, as well) has been so slow and incremental that if you weren't paying close attention, you'd think nothing whatsoever has happened. And Latino voters feel that they've waited long enough -- which is why Obama gave a speech today in the first place.

Speech aside, though, the chances of anything actually making it through Congress (especially the Senate) this year are nothing worth betting the farm upon. First of all, it's an election year, when very little usually gets done. Secondly, the Republican Party has openly embraced the "Party of No" label, and has made being against everything Obama is for the absolute centerpiece of their election strategy. And thirdly, the jobs picture is still mighty grim -- which is not the best time politically to talk about adding more legal workers to the system.

But even if these three things weren't true, I still would not give very good odds for comprehensive immigration reform passing. Because even George W. Bush couldn't get it done -- with either a Republican or a Democratic Congress. In other words, even Nixon didn't make it to China this particular time.

The plan that Bush tried to get passed wasn't even all that great a plan. It got watered down to the point of being more of a joke than an actual plan to solve the problem of over ten million illegal immigrants. But even this wasn't weak enough for Republicans to accept.

The Republican argument on immigration reform can be summed up in one word: "illegal." Because illegal immigrants are not here legally, they have broken American law. And because they've broken American law... well, that part gets filled in with all sorts of things, when Republicans even bother completing the thought. Mostly they don't, because on this issue, saying "No!" is really their entire political position. It's not so much that Republicans are out there (at least not most of them) calling for all illegal immigrants to be rounded up and deported tomorrow -- since most Republicans know it would likely be almost impossible to accomplish this -- but rather that anything which results in illegal immigrants being given any sort of path to citizenship is automatically branded "amnesty," and denounced as loudly as possible.

The politicians who do so, and the people who cheer them on, have -- quite obviously -- never exceeded the speed limit once in their lives, never cheated a tiny bit on their taxes, nor had a drink of beer before they were of legal age. It all boils down to "illegal means illegal" to them, with no shades of grey whatsoever. The Puritans in the 1600s would have loved this line of thought, in other words. And there is only one answer for breaking the law when you think this way -- ship them all home. There will be no discussion of fines, or community service, or any other penalties the government could impose -- because all of that namby-pamby liberal stuff just equates to "amnesty."

Even President Bush found this out. Now, to his credit, Bush actually wanted comprehensive immigration reform (likely because he hailed from Texas, where the subject isn't as abstract as it is in, say, Alaska). This was a fairly bold position to take as a Republican, and it is one of the few things the man did while in office with which I agreed. But congressional Republicans weren't having any of it. Before they killed the bill outright, they heaped so many penalties on any illegal immigrant who would like to become legal that by the end of the debate the best estimates were that only something like fifteen percent of illegal immigrants would have even made such an attempt. The price tag for doing so went up and up -- paying thousands and thousands of dollars in fines, paying back taxes, paying higher and higher filing fees -- and then, to top it all off, a requirement that after you had filed all the paperwork and paid over ten thousand dollars, you had to return to your country of origin and sit and wait for a decision -- whether it took months or years to arrive at this decision, and whether or not you had legal (citizen) American children in your care or not.

In this frenzy of making the path to citizenship as steep and rocky as possible, what nobody pointed out is that the harder Congress made it for anyone to travel this path to becoming legal, the fewer people would be applying. Let's say Bush's plan had actually passed Congress for a moment. Today, where would we be? With 85 percent of the problem unsolved. That is not exactly an answer to the overall problem, but again, nuances like this got lost in the debate and scapegoating going on in Congress over the issue.

Of course, Bush's plan didn't pass. Even with a Republican in the Oval Office, comprehensive immigration reform didn't happen. In the intervening years, Republicans have not softened or mellowed their position on the issue, rather they have hardened and dug in instead. What this means is that even if Democrats were united, speaking with one strong voice on the issue (I will pause here for you to finish laughing) -- even then, they'd still need a few Republican senators to go along with them. John McCain, who used to be reasonable on this issue and even worked with Bush on it, is facing a very tough election back home, and has moved so far to the right he now disavows the "maverick" label he's proudly worn for years. Lindsey Graham talks a good line, but has yet to vote on any of Obama's legislative priorities. Beyond these two, it is tough (if not impossible) to think of any other Republican senators who could be persuaded to join in the effort.

And even if McCain and Graham and a few others were on board, whatever Congress would come up with on the issue would be even more of a compromise than what Bush was pushing, since Republicans have been making political hay over the issue ever since, and since they now scream "Amnesty!" at the drop of a hat. To make comprehensive immigration reform politically viable, in other words, they would have to make it so incremental that it truly couldn't be called "comprehensive" by the end of the process.

Now, I'm normally not this cynical about political issues before the legislative process has even begun. And I could always be wrong in the way I'm reading things. But the only way I could see immigration reform passing through Congress in the foreseeable future is by making the "path to citizenship" part of it so Draconian that it wouldn't really be a path within the means of very many illegal immigrants -- which would make it an almost completely worthless exercise. The political reality, I feel, is that any piece of legislation which could pass (especially in the Senate) would -- by definition -- be so flawed that it would do very little to solve the problem of the ten-million-plus illegal immigrants who would like to become legal. And when the legislative answer to the underlying problem is simply not going to actually solve the same problem, very few politicians (of either party) are going to want to spend either their time or their political capital fighting for it.

Obama, in other words, will be forced to make a speech on immigration reform every so often (as he did today) to placate Latino voters, but even if Obama himself threw himself into the fray and did nothing else but lead the charge to pass comprehensive immigration reform, I really don't see any sort of true comprehensive reform happening. Even if Congress did manage to pass something -- which I also have serious doubts could happen within the next few years.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “Pessimism On Immigration Reform”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    The problem with Obama's stance on Immigration Reform is he want's to make all these new voters, but doesn't want to secure the border first..

    I think we would all agree that securing the border MUST come first..


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    And now we see that Obama's DOJ has filed a lawsuit against Arizona...

    Arizona's law is designed to benefit the people of Arizona.. You know.. AMERICAN citizens??

    Obama's lawsuit is designed to benefit....... criminals....

    Can ANYONE explain to me the logic behind this??


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Three reasons why the DOJ lawsuit against Arizona will fail.

    1. The Supremacy Clause. This is the Constitutional Clause that says that Federal Law trumps State laws. But this only comes into play when state laws are CONTRARY to Federal Law. In this case, the Arizona law mimics the Federal Law almost exactly. Therefore, the Supremacy Clause does not come into play.

    2. Racial Profiling. The second prong of attack for the DOJ is that the law would allow for racial profiling. This is a non-starter from the get-go as the Arizona Law specifically prohibits racial profiling.

    3. Finally, in 2002 the DOJ issued a memo that State Police have a quote inherent power unquote to arrest illegal immigrants on Federal Immigration Law violations. This seals the DOJ's fate with regards to this bogus lawsuit.

    It's a waste of time, effort and taxpayer money. All three would be better spent on actually addressing border security rather than fighting against states.


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Here is an excellent commentary from Larry Gatlin on the subject.. :D

    With all the Capitalization, one would think *I* wrote it. :D


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