Obama’s Immigration Independence Day

National Journal
Major Garrett
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.

What We're Following See More »
STAYING RELEVANT TIL 2020?
Rubio May Run for Reelection After All
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
SOCIAL ISSUES ROIL CONGRESS AGAIN
LGBT Amendment Sinks Energy and Water Approps
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

The House voted down the otherwise uncontroversial Energy and Water appropriations bill Thursday after Democrats succeeded in attaching an amendment affirming LGBT job discrimination protections for military contractors. More than 40 Republicans supported the amendment, but when it came to vote on the bill, 130 Republicans joined all but six Democrats to sink the bill. Speaker Paul Ryan said Democrats voting against the bill after securing the amendment shows their intention was to scuttle the process. Democrats, however, blamed other so-called poison-pill amendments for their votes against the bill. Nonetheless, Ryan said he intends to continue the appropriations process.

AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Source:
SCREENING DELAYS
70,000 Have Missed American Airlines Flights This Year
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Airport screening delays have caused more than 70,000 American Airlines customers and 40,000 checked bags to miss their flights this year, an executive for the airline told a U.S. congressional subcommittee on Thursday. A shortage of staff and a surge in air travelers have created a nightmare scenario for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with airport wait times in places like Chicago stretching beyond two hours."

Source:
AP KEEPING COUNT
Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Source:
×