Obama Wants Immigration Reform This Year, ‘but, This Is Washington, After All’

The president says it’s time to hustle on overhauling the immigration system by the end of 2013, but time is running out.

President Obama speaks about immigration reform alongside Vice President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Add to Briefcase
Marina Koren
Oct. 24, 2013, 8:16 a.m.

This week in Wash­ing­ton, it’s all about dead­lines. While the White House pon­ders ex­tend­ing the dead­line to buy health in­sur­ance without pay­ing a pen­alty, the pres­id­ent is push­ing Con­gress to re­form the coun­try’s im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem by the end of this year. As somber-faced con­tract­ors be­hind the glitch-rid­den health care web­site came un­der a hail­storm of ques­tions from the House on Thursday morn­ing, Pres­id­ent Obama was fired up.

“You look fired up to make the next push,” the pres­id­ent told the crowd in the East Room in a boom­ing voice re­min­is­cent of early cam­paign days. “It is time. Let’s go get it done.”

Flanked by Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, Obama said “every­body knows” that the cur­rent im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem in the United States is broken. “It’s not smart; it’s not fair; it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We have kicked this par­tic­u­lar can down the road for too long.”

Obama said the ma­jor­ity of the gen­er­al pub­lic fa­vors im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and the polls back him up: Three-quar­ters of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve im­mig­ra­tion policy needs a ma­jor over­haul, with 35 per­cent say­ing it needs to be “com­pletely re­built,” ac­cord­ing to a Pew poll in May. An­oth­er poll a month later showed that 71 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants should be al­lowed to stay in the coun­try, but 77 per­cent said any le­gis­la­tion that al­lows that should also boost bor­der se­cur­ity. On this, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans re­main split: The former thinks leg­al status ap­plic­a­tions and bor­der im­prove­ments can hap­pen at the same time; the lat­ter wants to fo­cus on bor­ders first. This di­vide is likely to be at the cen­ter of policy ne­go­ti­ations in Con­gress.

That fu­ture, at least dur­ing the next two months, looks bleak, and the pres­id­ent knows that. “Now, ob­vi­ously just be­cause something is smart and fair and good for the eco­nomy and fisc­ally re­spons­ible and sup­por­ted by busi­ness and labor, the evan­gel­ic­al com­munity and many Demo­crats and many Re­pub­lic­ans, that does not mean that it will ac­tu­ally get done,” Obama said, draw­ing laughter. “This is Wash­ing­ton, after all.” In oth­er words, if Obama’s dead­line isn’t met, it’s go­ing to be be­cause of con­gres­sion­al grid­lock.

In Wash­ing­ton, Obama said, some law­makers are primed to op­pose im­mig­ra­tion re­form le­gis­la­tion, such as the Sen­ate bill passed earli­er this year, be­cause of its Demo­crat­ic sup­port. “I’d re­mind every­body that my Re­pub­lic­an pre­de­cessor was also for it when he pro­posed re­forms like this al­most a dec­ade ago,” he said, re­fer­ring to George W. Bush’s im­mig­ra­tion pro­pos­al in 2007, which is sub­stant­ively sim­il­ar to this year’s lan­guage.  

“There are go­ing to be mo­ment — and there are al­ways mo­ments like this in big ef­forts at re­form — where you meet res­ist­ance and the press will de­clare something dead,” Obama said. “It’s not go­ing to hap­pen, but that can be over­come.” With 2014 draw­ing closer, the win­dow for talks on im­mig­ra­tion re­form le­gis­la­tion — let alone passing any — is shrink­ing. The is­sue may not be dead yet, but it’s not look­ing so good.

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