Obama’s Immigration Independence Day

National Journal
July 3, 2014, 10:56 a.m.

More than a dozen cen­ter-left and hard-left im­mig­ra­tion groups sent rep­res­ent­at­ives to what soun­ded like an­oth­er un­in­spir­ing strategy ses­sion in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with seni­or Obama ad­viser Valer­ie Jar­rett and Cecil­ia Mun­oz, head of the Do­mest­ic Policy Coun­cil.

It was early Monday af­ter­noon, and none of the par­ti­cipants seated around the long rect­an­gu­lar table had any ink­ling Pres­id­ent Obama was pissed. They would soon find out. Moreover, they would dis­cov­er, to their sur­prise, that Obama was no longer pissed at them, but with them. This be­ing a meet­ing of Demo­crat­ic al­lies, of course, some of the groups even­tu­ally found a way to get Obama pissed off at them all over again — over the is­sue of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors at the bor­der.

But first, the story of the day was that Obama be­came un­plugged on im­mig­ra­tion, took his tem­per off mute, shook up the un­der­ly­ing base polit­ics of the next two elec­tions, and turned up to boil his long-sim­mer­ing feud with Re­pub­lic­ans over the con­sti­tu­tion­al lim­its of ex­ec­ut­ive power.

Jar­rett and Mun­oz called the meet­ing to or­der and, ac­cord­ing to par­ti­cipants, ex­pect­a­tions were low and anxi­ety high. A quick look around the table re­vealed the still-smol­der­ing wound Obama felt after be­ing branded “de­port­er-in-chief.” The author­ess of the hot­test barb ever dir­ec­ted at Obama by the Left, Janet Mur­guia of the Na­tion­al Coun­cil of La Raza, was con­spicu­ously ab­sent. No rep­res­ent­at­ive of La Raza was even in­vited.

It was hard for any­one to ima­gine new pos­sib­il­it­ies for the White House with this schism so ap­par­ent.

Those who were there — the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on; AFL-CIO; Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress; Lead­er­ship Coun­cil on Civil Rights; Amer­ica’s Voice; the Na­tion­al Im­mig­ra­tion Law Cen­ter; United Farm Work­ers; Cen­ter for Com­munity Change; and oth­ers — ex­pec­ted an­oth­er dreary ap­peal from Jar­rett and Mun­oz to give House Speak­er John Boehner un­til the Au­gust re­cess to try to move some form of im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion. The im­mig­ra­tion groups were fed up with what they had long re­garded as Obama’s doughy dif­fid­ence and had no stom­ach for an­oth­er “stay-the-course” so­li­lo­quy from Jar­rett and Mun­oz.

What the im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates couldn’t help no­ti­cing were the two empty chairs at the cen­ter of the table on the Oval Of­fice side of the Roosevelt Room, op­pos­ite the vis­it­ors’ en­trance.

Jar­rett and Mun­oz sat on either side of the empty chairs and White House coun­sel Neil Eggle­ston was to Mun­oz’s right. Jar­rett and Mun­oz were in the open­ing stanza of their im­mig­ra­tion up­date when Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden walked in and sat down. They stayed for more than an hour, Obama do­ing most of the talk­ing and nev­er re­fer­ring to notes. Biden chimed in only when, later on, the de­bate turned to the cur­rent bor­der crisis over un­ac­com­pan­ied minors.

Obama told the group that Boehner had in­formed him on June 24 there would be no votes on im­mig­ra­tion be­fore the midterm elec­tion but that he be­lieved there was a good chance a com­pre­hens­ive bill could pass in the next Con­gress. The pres­id­ent also told the group that Boehner urged him not to press ahead with ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion be­cause that would make le­gis­lat­ing more dif­fi­cult next year.

Obama told the group, ac­cord­ing to those present, his re­sponse to Boehner was: “Sorry about that. I’m go­ing to keep my prom­ise and move for­ward with ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion soon.”

In the room, there was something of a col­lect­ive, elec­tric gasp. The as­sembled im­mig­ra­tion-rights groups had been lean­ing hard on Obama for months to use ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion to sidestep Con­gress and privately mocked what they re­garded as Pol­ly­anna hopes that House Re­pub­lic­ans would budge. They had been burned be­fore. Obama re­versed him­self in late March and slammed the brakes on Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment stud­ies of slow­ing de­port­a­tions in the name of “hu­mane” treat­ment, all in the name of giv­ing House Re­pub­lic­ans more time on im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

Ever since, im­mig­ra­tion groups on the left des­paired over Obama’s cred­u­lous para­lys­is. Protests en­sued.

Not any longer. Obama told the groups what they had been dy­ing to hear — that he was go­ing to con­demn House Re­pub­lic­ans for in­ac­tion and set the most ex­pans­ive leg­al course per­miss­ible to beef up bor­der se­cur­ity, slow de­port­a­tions of non­crim­in­al ali­ens, and provide leg­al status to mil­lions of un­doc­u­mented work­ers — all by him­self.

“He went from hanging back to call­ing the ques­tion and re­tak­ing the ini­ti­at­ive,” said Frank Sharry, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Amer­ica’s Voice. “I kept think­ing, ‘Where has this guy been?’ He’s go­ing on of­fense. He was a dif­fer­ent guy. He was un­plugged. After months of him and his team be­ing angry with ad­voc­ates for put­ting pres­sure on him to take ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, it be­came clear he was no longer go­ing to use the pro­spect of le­gis­la­tion to de­flect at­ten­tion and pres­sure from him.”

Obama made it clear he would press his ex­ec­ut­ive powers to the lim­it. He gave quiet cre­dence to re­com­mend­a­tions from La Raza and oth­er im­mig­ra­tion groups that between 5 mil­lion to 6 mil­lion adult il­leg­al im­mig­rants could be spared de­port­a­tion un­der a sim­il­ar form of de­ferred ad­ju­dic­a­tion he ordered for the so-called Dream­ers in June 2012.

That ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion es­sen­tially lif­ted the threat of pro­sec­u­tion and de­port­a­tion for about 670,000 un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents — those older than 15 and young­er than 31 who had been brought to Amer­ica be­fore their 16th birth­day.

Obama has now ordered the Home­land Se­cur­ity and Justice de­part­ments to find ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­it­ies that could en­large that non-pro­sec­utori­al um­brella by a factor of 10. Seni­or of­fi­cials also tell me Obama wants to see what he can do with ex­ec­ut­ive power to provide tem­por­ary leg­al status to un­doc­u­mented adults. And he will shift Im­mig­ra­tion Con­trol and En­force­ment re­sources from the in­teri­or to the bor­der to re­duce de­port­a­tions of those already here and to beef up de­fenses along the bor­der.

“Things were get­ting ragged with some of the im­mig­ra­tion groups,” said Mar­shall Fitz, dir­ect­or of im­mig­ra­tion policy at the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress. “Many of us had long drawn the con­clu­sion the House Re­pub­lic­ans were not go­ing to budge. After Obama spoke, the vibe was, ‘Wow. This is a very clear, very ser­i­ous pivot.’ “

There en­sued a brief de­bate about the un­der­ly­ing polit­ics of ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion in the shad­ow of the midterm elec­tions — wheth­er it would mo­tiv­ate Lati­nos and pro­gress­ives in lar­ger num­bers than tea-party-in­spired GOP voters; would it cut for or against Sen­ate Demo­crats in red states like Louisi­ana, Arkan­sas, Alaska, North Car­o­lina, and Geor­gia; and how it would play in 2016.

“He didn’t seem to give a shit,” Sharry said. “It was clear he was go­ing on of­fense and go­ing to run to the ques­tion.”

With­in the White House, the sense is that Obama’s com­ing moves on im­mig­ra­tion will not help any­where but Col­or­ado and pos­sibly Vir­gin­ia. Ad­visers hope, per­haps un­real­ist­ic­ally, there will be a red-state push. The 2016 cal­cu­lus is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. In­side and out­side the White House, the con­sensus is that GOP in­ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion re­form will define the cam­paign and any at­tempts to draft le­gis­la­tion in the next Con­gress — with or without a GOP ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate and the House — will com­plic­ate polit­ic­al pro­spects for Re­pub­lic­ans seek­ing the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion and for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans up for reelec­tion in blue states, people like Flor­ida (Marco Ru­bio), Illinois (Mark Kirk), Iowa (Chuck Grass­ley), Ohio (Rob Port­man), Wis­con­sin (Ron John­son), and Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey).

But that’s not the end of the im­mig­ra­tion story, polit­ic­ally or oth­er­wise. The fury over Obama’s loom­ing ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions will come. And it will be loud. But the cur­rent crisis over un­ac­com­pan­ied minors at the south­ern bor­der is also a prism for Obama’s will­ing­ness to use the law to de­port il­leg­als — even chil­dren in des­per­ate cir­cum­stances.

That is­sue also arose in the Roosevelt Room, and it drove a deep wedge between Obama and the im­mig­ra­tion groups re­united mo­ments be­fore around the ex­ec­ut­ive-ac­tion strategy.

Ac­cord­ing to those present, Obama was fo­cused en­tirely on fu­ture ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions when Gust­avo Torres of CASA de Mary­land asked about the un­ac­com­pan­ied minors and Obama’s de­sire to ex­pand his power to de­port the chil­dren, re­turn­ing them, in most cases, to El Sal­vador, Guatem­ala, and Hon­dur­as. Obama said his goal was to provide hu­man­it­ari­an as­sist­ance, speed up the pro­cessing of the cases un­der the law, and ask Con­gress for up to $3 bil­lion for hous­ing and tem­por­ary courts to pro­cess and de­port those without leg­al stand­ing.

To many in the Roosevelt Room, this soun­ded tech­no­crat­ic and pro­ced­ur­al and bor­der­line in­hu­mane. Mar­i­elena Hin­capie, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Los Angeles of­fice of the Na­tion­al Im­mig­ra­tion Law Cen­ter, urged Obama to look at the hu­man tragedy of chil­dren flee­ing vi­ol­ence in their home coun­tries and con­sider wheth­er swift de­port­a­tions would deny them due pro­cess.

Obama, ac­cord­ing to those present, ar­gued force­fully that the U.S. had to sig­nal its in­tent to en­force the law through de­port­a­tions and that fail­ure to do so could lead more chil­dren to die en route to the south­ern bor­der or take scan­dal­ous risks by trav­el­ing with smug­glers or on the roofs of trains. He could not, in good con­science, give any re­motely en­cour­aging sig­nal to chil­dren or their par­ents to risk their lives, as many had already done in com­ing to Amer­ica’s door­step.

An­gel­ica Salas, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Co­ali­tion for Hu­mane Im­mig­rant Rights of Los Angeles, piped up and warned Obama that the driv­ing en­ergy to reach the United States could not be stopped. “Mr. Pres­id­ent, when my fam­ily and I came to the coun­try, I was 5 years old, and when we were caught cross­ing the bor­der and were sent back, we didn’t give up,” Salas said. “We kept try­ing un­til we made it.”

Obama, ac­cord­ing to those present, would have none of it. Kids all over the world have it tough, he said. Even chil­dren in Amer­ica who live in dan­ger­ous neigh­bor­hoods would like to live some­where else, but he can’t solve every­one’s prob­lems. He told the groups he had to en­force the law — even if that meant de­port­ing hard cases with minors in­volved. Some­times, there is an in­her­ent in­justice in where you are born, and no pres­id­ent can solve that, Obama said. But pres­id­ents must send the mes­sage that you can’t just show up on the bor­der, plead for asylum or refugee status, and hope to get it.

“Then any­one can come in, and it means that, ef­fect­ively, we don’t have any kind of sys­tem,” Obama said. “We are a na­tion with bor­ders that must be en­forced.”

The dis­cus­sion ended am­ic­ably if un­sat­is­fact­or­ily. Obama thanked the ad­voc­ates for their pas­sion and said he un­der­stood their con­cerns about due pro­cess for un­ac­com­pan­ied minors but re­mained res­ol­ute about de­port­a­tions.

“The is­sue is real, and the solu­tions are un­at­tain­able in the short term,” said Fitz of Amer­ic­an Pro­gress. “Every­one un­der­stood that. The fam­il­ies of these chil­dren are mak­ing a dire de­cision, and the pres­id­ent didn’t want that de­cision in­fused with the false hope that there was a golden tick­et wait­ing for them on the bor­der. “

In this re­gard, Obama has aligned him­self with con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, even though they ac­know­ledge it only rhet­or­ic­ally. Obama will soon ask Con­gress for more power to de­port the un­ac­com­pan­ied minors, rank­ling Demo­crats like Sen. Robert Men­en­dez, chair­man of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee. Men­en­dez was dis­pleased when briefed last week on Obama’s en­force­ment plans. House Re­pub­lic­ans may prove re­cept­ive to the money and the de­port­a­tion au­thor­ity when it comes time to write a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion.

Either way, Obama’s now struck his own path on the lar­ger is­sue of com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form and un­ac­com­pan­ied minors on the bor­der, pleas­ing no one com­pletely in the pro­cess.

Obama’s In­de­pend­ence Day came June 30, four days early. On this is­sue, it was, and will re­main, a day to re­mem­ber.

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