Immigration Activists Have Lost Patience With Obama

Activists and lawmakers on the left say immigration reform isn’t going to happen this summer and that after Eric Cantor’s loss, the White House shouldn’t delay any more.

Rep. Raul Grijalva is arrested on Capitol Hill in an act of civil disobedience to encourage support of immigration reform, October 8, 2013 on The National Mall in Washington DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
June 16, 2014, 1:20 a.m.

Im­mig­ra­tion act­iv­ists and their al­lies in Con­gress are tired of wait­ing for the White House to act on de­port­a­tions. And any re­main­ing pa­tience has run out in the af­ter­math of House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor’s shock­ing primary de­feat to a man who por­trayed him as “pro-am­nesty.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which delayed ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on de­port­a­tion policy to give House Re­pub­lic­ans time to act on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, is try­ing to spin Can­tor’s loss as mak­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form more, not less, likely, with primary sea­son all but fin­ished. But a num­ber of law­makers on the Hill aren’t buy­ing it.

“As ad­mir­able as it is for the pres­id­ent to con­tin­ue to ex­tend an olive branch to the lead­er­ship on the House side, Re­pub­lic­ans, to come up with something … it’s not go­ing to hap­pen,” said Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, D-Ar­iz. “There will be a pan­ic. The pan­ic will be to stay away from this is­sue.”

He ad­ded: “Can­tor’s loss only means that some­body who had been flirt­ing with the idea is gone.”

Can­tor’s op­pon­ent, Dave Brat, tried to make im­mig­ra­tion the fo­cal point of his primary at­tacks. While Can­tor’s sup­port for mod­est im­mig­ra­tion meas­ures (even though he nev­er ac­tu­ally wrote or called up a bill) wasn’t the reas­on he lost, such a high-pro­file de­feat will, at the very least, put the scare in­to Re­pub­lic­ans, says Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez, D-Ill.

“No one doubts that it com­plic­ates the equa­tion that leads to­ward suc­cess on im­mig­ra­tion re­form. You have to be an idi­ot to think that it doesn’t com­plic­ate it,” Gu­ti­er­rez said.

For starters, House Re­pub­lic­ans are busy fig­ur­ing out who will be their next lead­er, and po­ten­tially ma­jor­ity whip if the cur­rent one moves up (elec­tions will be held June 19). Ush­er­ing through any com­plex mat­ter in the House will be chal­len­ging for a con­fer­ence thrown in­to chaos by Can­tor’s un­ex­pec­ted loss.

Gu­ti­er­rez, who was dis­ap­poin­ted the White House delayed ac­tion in the first place, isn’t ready to de­clare re­form dead even now. He’s still stick­ing to his Ju­ly 4 dead­line for ac­tion from House Re­pub­lic­ans.

Oth­er mem­bers aren’t so op­tim­ist­ic. 

“Most Re­pub­lic­ans nev­er wanted to do it any­way,” says Rep. Joa­quin Castro, D-Texas. “The win­dow has been clos­ing. After Ju­ly 31, we’re only in ses­sion for 26 days.” 

When asked what the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should do re­gard­ing de­port­a­tion ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, Castro said, “They should have taken ac­tion already. I think they should take ac­tion.” 

Or­gan­iz­a­tions like United We Dream, which had already cri­ti­cized Obama for delay­ing ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, point to Can­tor’s loss as mak­ing their case even stronger now.

Tues­day’s “primary res­ults are an­oth­er re­mind­er why lead­er­ship and ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion are des­per­ately needed and why Pres­id­ent Obama must de­liv­er re­lief for our fam­il­ies now,” the group’s man­ager dir­ect­or, Cristina Ji­me­nez, said in a state­ment, adding, “Both parties con­tin­ue play­ing polit­ic­al games with our fam­il­ies.”

On­line Latino ad­vocacy group Presente.org re­ferred to Can­tor’s de­feat as prov­ing their point that re­form is dead. “We urge Pres­id­ent Obama to face the facts, stand up to the xeno­phobic and hate­ful forces in Amer­ica, and take ac­tion to stop de­port­a­tions im­me­di­ately,” the group said in a state­ment. “Any­thing less is un­ac­cept­able to Lati­nos across the coun­try.”

One House Demo­crat­ic law­maker put it this way: “The time is up for these guys. I didn’t think they were go­ing to move on it be­fore — at least there was some kind of hope. Now, I think it’s cer­tainly dead.”

Rep. Al­bio Sires, a New Jer­sey Demo­crat, says the ad­min­is­tra­tion should “ab­so­lutely” move on ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion now. “They should have ac­ted soon­er than this. This ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­por­ted more people than any oth­er ad­min­is­tra­tion in the his­tory of this coun­try.” 

Sires cited the oft-re­peated stat­ist­ic of 2 mil­lion de­por­ted un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion as evid­ence that the pres­id­ent needs to act, par­tic­u­larly giv­en plum­met­ing His­pan­ic ap­prov­al for him. On the oth­er end, Re­pub­lic­ans charge that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is in­flat­ing its de­port­a­tion fig­ures by count­ing de­port­a­tions that wer­en’t coun­ted as such un­der pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions. Re­movals from the in­teri­or hav­ing gone down, while those with­in 100 miles of the bor­der have gone up.

Un­der pres­sure from forces on the left, in March Obama dir­ec­ted Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son to con­duct a re­view of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s en­force­ment of de­port­a­tion policy, to see if it could be made more “hu­mane.” The res­ults of that re­view, which are likely not to be ex­tens­ive in scope, were ex­pec­ted this sum­mer. Then the ad­min­is­tra­tion said it wouldn’t an­nounce the res­ults un­til after Au­gust in or­der to give Re­pub­lic­ans one last shot to pass re­form. A num­ber of Demo­crat­ic law­makers, as well as main­stream im­mig­ra­tion groups, backed that cal­cu­la­tion.

But ad­voc­ates on the left said the six-week delay has real-life con­sequences.

“In the pro­cess, cyn­ic­ally, we get set up, polit­ic­ally, to wait,” Gri­jalva said. “We have a base, the Demo­crat­ic Party has a base, and I think quite frankly, the pres­id­ent, through his ac­tions, can deal with that base. Ab­sent that, we just be­come part of the whole and that’s a dis­tinc­tion I don’t want.”

Those look­ing for signs of hope on the Hill that re­form will hap­pen will have to look very hard. House Speak­er John Boehner re­it­er­ated Thursday that “the is­sue of im­mig­ra­tion re­form has not changed” in light of Can­tor’s loss, point­ing once again to his reas­on­ing: House Re­pub­lic­ans can’t trust the pres­id­ent to en­force laws already on the books. 

And the ex­pec­ted front-run­ner in the race to re­place Can­tor in lead­er­ship, cur­rent Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy (who has voiced sup­port for leg­al­iz­a­tion), doesn’t sound any more eager than Boehner to act fast.

But just as Can­tor’s loss has thrown the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence in­to chaos, im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ad­voc­ates are still fig­ur­ing out what this means for them.

“I fully ex­pec­ted in the month of June we would be spend­ing a lot of time” on this is­sue, Gu­ti­er­rez said in the Speak­er’s Lobby, just mo­ments after Boehner walked by and gave him a big em­brace. “John Boehner and I would be do­ing more than giv­ing hugs in the lobby.”

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