Obama’s Immigration Softball Game

Reform advocates say the president could use his executive power to do more on the issue. Here’s why he isn’t.

WASHINGTON - JULY 28: Dozens of U.S.-born children from across the country traveled to the White House with their undocumented parents to march and demonstrate against recent deportations July 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. Organized by CASA de Maryland, Familias Latinas Unidas, and other organizations, marchers describing themselves as "Obama Orphans," or children whose parents have been deported, called on President Barack Obama to keep his campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform. 
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James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Feb. 25, 2014, midnight

Some­time soon, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion will de­port its 2 mil­lionth im­mig­rant, a re­cord that vexes the lib­er­als and act­iv­ists who ex­pec­ted something bet­ter from this pres­id­ent. The ag­gress­ive ap­proach to round­ing up and send­ing off bor­der-cross­ers has led to protests such as the one last week in front of the White House, in which lead­ers of the anti-re­mov­al move­ment were ar­res­ted in an act of civil dis­obedi­ence as the crowd chanted, “Not one more, not one more,” in Eng­lish and Span­ish.

For months now, Pres­id­ent Obama has been telling act­iv­ists like those, as well as re­form groups and con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats, that he can’t take ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion, even as House Re­pub­lic­ans in­creas­ingly evince dis­in­terest in mov­ing a bill this year.

That mes­sage has been poorly re­ceived. It has struck pro­gress­ive crit­ics as odd that, in a year in which Obama has chosen to em­phas­ize his power (pen, phone, yada, yada, yada) to act in the face of con­gres­sion­al para­lys­is, he would choose not to deal with per­haps the largest so­cial and law-en­force­ment is­sue on his desk. And they see it as down­right disin­genu­ous for the pres­id­ent to claim he lacks the power that they know he pos­sesses.

The White House is aware of all this. But the pres­id­ent and his aides have stayed al­most re­lent­lessly dis­cour­aging. Obama was heckled at an event in San Fran­cisco in Decem­ber when a stu­dent shouted that he had the power to re­duce de­port­a­tions. “Ac­tu­ally, I don’t,” the pres­id­ent re­spon­ded — an odd thing for any chief ex­ec­ut­ive to con­cede. As re­cently as the Demo­crat­ic con­gres­sion­al re­treat in Mary­land, Obama un­der­scored the lim­its on his au­thor­ity.

Yet, there is a lo­gic to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach. Des­pite the brave talk this year about tak­ing uni­lat­er­al ac­tion — and the re­cruit­ment of ad­viser John Podesta to make it a real­ity — the White House un­der­stands that Obama could hurt the chances of a bill mak­ing it out of the House if he moves on his own.

The GOP is already on high alert for that very thing, ready to again cast the pres­id­ent as power-mad dic­tat­or. The shift­ing en­force­ment of man­dates un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act has giv­en Re­pub­lic­ans some midterm-elec­tion lever­age. This would com­pound the nar­rat­ive.

Ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, said Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Adam Kin­zinger of Illinois, breeds mis­trust. “If the pres­id­ent sig­nals that he is will­ing to go around Con­gress on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, it will deeply dam­age the chances that the House will be able to move for­ward with its own step-by-step re­forms,” Kin­zinger, who fa­vors re­form, told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

He re­mains con­fid­ent le­gis­la­tion can still get done this year, des­pite the re­cent pess­im­ism from the speak­er’s of­fice. And a House lead­er­ship aide echoed Kin­zinger’s as­sess­ment that pro­gress re­mains pos­sible.

In the mean­time, the last thing the White House wants to do is take the fo­cus off the GOP’s di­vi­sions on im­mig­ra­tion by push­ing through a new de­port­a­tion policy. Des­pite the protests last week, much of the grass­roots an­ger over im­mig­ra­tion re­mains dir­ec­ted at Re­pub­lic­ans — and the ad­min­is­tra­tion would like to keep it that way. “The main thing people can do right now is put pres­sure on Re­pub­lic­ans who have re­fused so far to act,” Obama told the Span­ish-lan­guage Uni­vi­sion net­work this month.

That has put many con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats and pro­gress­ive ad­voc­ates who have im­plored the pres­id­ent to act on de­port­a­tions in a bind. They real­ize that ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion could pois­on the well, but they also worry about the real hu­man cost of wait­ing for the GOP to move. Kev­in Ap­pleby, who dir­ects mi­gra­tion and refugee policy for the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Cath­ol­ic Bish­ops, be­lieves that Obama’s act­ing alone “plays in­to the hands of tea-party act­iv­ists,” but he also warns that his or­gan­iz­a­tion could soon change its stance.

“There’s a stat­ute of lim­it­a­tions on that,” Ap­pleby said. If it be­comes clear that Con­gress isn’t go­ing to act, then it will fall on the pres­id­ent to do something.

In­deed, some ad­voc­ates be­lieve Obama isn’t be­ing ag­gress­ive enough — that he can use the ex­ec­ut­ive-ac­tion threat to force Re­pub­lic­ans to cut a deal. “This is their last op­por­tun­ity to put their fin­ger­prints on the policy and take cred­it polit­ic­ally,” said Frank Sharry, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the pro-re­form group Amer­ica’s Voice.

Obama, he said, is play­ing soft­ball with the GOP by down­play­ing his power. “Of course, we would love him to play hard­ball,” Sharry said, “but I gave up on that back in 2009.”

Jes­sica Karp, a law­yer for the Na­tion­al Day Laborers Or­gan­iz­ing Net­work, which helped or­gan­ize the protest at the White House last week, said ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion would al­low the pres­id­ent to “enter the ne­go­ti­ations from a po­s­i­tion of power.”

Her group has filed a rule­mak­ing pe­ti­tion with the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment that chal­lenges Obama’s as­ser­tion that he lacks power to grant re­lief from de­port­a­tions, cit­ing as an ex­ample his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision in 2012 to sus­pend en­force­ment of the law for “Dream­ers” — chil­dren brought to the U.S. il­leg­ally by their par­ents. “He has the au­thor­ity to ex­pand that pro­gram to in­clude oth­er people,” Karp said.

Au­thor­ity and will are two dif­fer­ent things. This isn’t the first time the pres­id­ent has waited for the GOP to come around. Ex­amples that spring to mind in­clude health care re­form, the budget se­quester, and Syr­ia. The Re­pub­lic­ans nev­er budged on any of those.

The White House is again hop­ing things will be dif­fer­ent. But if things go south this year, as many ex­pect, Obama will quickly fall un­der in­tense pres­sure from his base to take ac­tion in or­der to avoid go­ing down in his­tory as the Demo­crat who de­por­ted more im­mig­rants than any oth­er pres­id­ent in his­tory.

It’s a policy bomb that could be wired to det­on­ate as early as this sum­mer — right in the heat of the 2014 elec­tions.

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