Just about a year ago, after the Senate passed its bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, Rep. Luis Gutierrez appeared on C-SPAN and exuded confidence that the bill would make it through the House of Representatives and be signed into law. “I think the prospects in the House are good,” Gutierrez said, “if we continue to understand that things happen in Washington, D.C., as long as there’s a consistent and persistent demand outside of Washington, D.C.” Speaker John Boehner had already called the Senate bill dead-on-arrival, but Gutierrez was undeterred. “I think you are not going to be able to stop the will of the American people.”
Gutierrez, one of immigration reform’s most enthusiastic and optimistic proponents, spent the ensuing months praising and castigating and warning Republicans to take action on the legislation. But now, even Luis Gutierrez has given up. In a speech on the House floor yesterday, Gutierrez gave the House Republicans a “red card” (World Cup fever: Catch it!) and said the window for legislative action was closed: “Your chance to play a role in how immigration and deportation policies are carried out this year is over.” Only one option remains, Gutierrez said. “It is now time for the president to act.”
Gutierrez’s move to put the onus on the administration to ease deportations is a sign that the reform movement is no longer content to wait for the White House to exhaust all its political options. The administration had indicated that it wanted to give the Republicans time and space to come up with a legislative proposal, but no one believes that will actually happen. Two moves by Republicans this week make clear that the GOP’s interest in immigration begins and ends with its utility as a vehicle to attack the president. And the White House now finds itself caught between impatient allies, antagonistic Republicans and a crisis at the border that throws the whole political dynamic for a loop.
On Tuesday, Rep. Darrell Issa circulated a memo among House Republicans asking them to join him in calling for Obama to reverse his 2012 executive action to defer deportations of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. “The Executive does not get to pick and choose which laws must be enforced and which can be selectively ignored,” Issa wrote.
Yesterday, Boehner announced that he intends to introduce legislation to file suit against the administration to “compel the president to follow his oath of office and faithfully execute the laws of our country.” In a memo to his colleagues, Boehner said that “President Obama has circumvented the Congress through executive action, creating his own laws and excusing himself from executing statutes he is sworn to enforce.” The memo doesn’t mention immigration – it doesn’t mention any specific executive actions – but it’s reasonable to conclude that immigration is on Boehner’s mind.
Republicans clearly think they have a winning political message in accusing Obama of executive overreach and lawlessness. It’s an issue that resonates with conservatives who would like nothing more than to see Obama impeached. They know that by blocking immigration reform, they’re impelling Obama to go it alone, which plays into their message and inflames conservative anger at the administration. At this point they’re basically taunting Obama into taking more unilateral action on deportations.
The administration hasn’t much cared about Republican pearl-clutching over executive orders (his rate of issuing said orders is lower than every president since Grover Cleveland) but the rapidly burgeoning humanitarian crisis at the border complicates matters. Tens of thousands of minors from Central America and Mexico are pouring into the border states as they flee drug and gang violence in their home countries. Republicans are working to exploit the crisis and pin blame for it on Obama – specifically on his executive action to defer deportations for younger immigrants. Issa called the policy a “magnet to pull in a great deal of new illegals” and said it was causing children to die trying to cross the border. That's wildly dishonest and a gross oversimplification of the problem.
The White House, however, has been struggling to deal with the politics of this. The administration is sending additional money and resources to the border states to help cope with the influx, and it's making every effort to publicize the fact that kids who cross the border will not be eligible for deferred action on deportations. That's not an acknowledgment that Obama's deportation policies contributed to the current crisis, but it does show the White House is concerned that misinformation about America's immigration laws could be a factor. An additional executive action to ease deportations would open them up to accusations from Republicans that Obama is exacerbating an already bad situation.
On the other hand, Gutierrez and the immigration reform community seem to have reached the outer limit of their patience and want Obama to act on deportations now. They argue, rightly, that there’s a separate ongoing crisis in which families are being broken up by deportations. The president helped precipitate that situation by ramping up enforcement the past few years, and he’s uniquely situated to mitigate it. Now that basically everyone has given up hope for legislation in the House, they have a convincing case to make that there’s nothing to be gained by delaying any further.
Ultimately Obama isn't likely to be cowed by the GOP. They've already shown themselves to be bad faith actors and they'll whack him for "overreach" no matter what he does. Also, immigration is one of the areas in which Obama can still have a significant impact. But if he does act, he'll have to make clear why action needs to be taken now, given the policy and enforcement questions raised by the crisis at the border.