Stop punting on immigration! There'll never be a perfect time, so just get it done already

If the White House fears the politics of executive action on deportations, it will never get anything done

Published October 9, 2014 6:21PM (EDT)

Barack Obama                                   (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Barack Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

President Obama promised to deliver sweeping executive action to slow deportations of undocumented immigrants sometime over the summer, and then he didn't. It just wasn't the right time. Democratic Senate candidates in close races in difficult territory would have been pushed over the edge.

Was that the reason? Let's go Occam's Razor on this one and say "yes." But the simple explanation isn't a good look for the White House. It looks cheap and shallow for a President to delay a major policy decision because it might negatively affect his party's election prospects. So Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, has formulated another explanation for the delay, something about "protecting the political viability" of immigration reform. From Roll Call:

Instead, Earnest said the concern was more about the post-election dynamic should Republicans win.

“The concern would be that they would cite their opposition to immigration reform as a reason for their success. That is not a storyline that the president wanted — or that anybody here wanted to contribute to,” Earnest said.

Earnest downplayed election concerns.

“I don’t think in the vast majority of congressional races that it is a particularly wise or popular decision to say that you’re (against) common-sense, bipartisan immigration reform,” he said. “… This is less an issue about trying to dictate or influence the outcome of the elections and more about making sure that the immigration issue is not a casualty of post-election political analysis. And that’s — that is a complicated case to make, but it is important to protecting the political viability of an issue that the president thinks is a top domestic priority, and that’s immigration reform.”

This isn't convincing enough to suggest that helping Democratic candidates was a total non-factor in the administration's thinking, but there's some merit to it. Had Obama taken executive action around Labor Day and then the Republicans had won the Senate, Republicans absolutely would have cited it as central to their success.

That's just the thing, though: there are always going to be reasonable excuses for not taking executive action on deportations, because no matter when you do it, it's going to piss off Republicans.

Consider the new White House plan, which is to take executive action on deportations some time before the end of the year. Obama has given his word to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and immigration activists that this is what he'll do. But are we really to believe that the coast will be clear after November 4? Matt Yglesias makes a persuasive argument that there will be even more reasons after the election, especially if Republicans win the Senate, for the White House to drop its plans -- most obviously, announcing a plan that GOP hates after the GOP has just had a successful election will strike a discordant note:

Especially if Republicans take the Senate — which seems likely — it's easy for me to imagine that they will look around at the new November landscape and have a change of heart.

To see why, just think about the speech that the president would have given had he announced this initiative back in June. He would have said that immigration reform was a pressing problem. He would have praised the Senate for passing a bipartisan reform bill with an overwhelming majority behind it. He would have noted that the House of Representatives had refused to bring any kind of immigration legislation to the floor. He would have argued that the public was behind him, and made the humanitarian case for action, and flagged the business community's desire for reform. He would have bemoaned Republican obstructionism. And he would have plowed ahead with a controversial expansion of executive authority.

His argument, in other words, would have been that House Republicans were obstructing something the public, the business community, and even a bipartisan majority of the Senate wanted. But can you really cry obstruction right after losing an election? Republicans would be able to claim not just that Obama was stretching his authority in a novel way, but doing so specifically to overturn an adverse result in the midterms. "When I take executive action, I want to make sure that it's sustainable," Obama told NBC's Chuck Todd. Is it really going to look more sustainable after voters elect more anti-immigration Republicans in November?

Look at any window of time you'd like, and you'll always see legitimate excuses for inaction. You'll always see a Republican party that will be offended to the core, question the legality of it and try to undo it, red/purple-state Democratic Senators who'll fear blowback, and the probability of bipartisan immigration reform happening anytime in the near-term future drop from 1% to 0%. Broad executive action of deportations, no matter how settled the legality of it, will always be a controversial, divisive move -- because it will be a meaningful piece of action.

It's hard to believe that the White House, after disappointing immigration activists so deeply by delaying executive action once, would break the promise again. But if it's still concerned about protecting the politics of immigration reform, it's going to run into a whole new series of problems after Election Day.

At the root of all these political concerns seems to be lingering belief within the administration that bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform, passed through Congress, may still be achievable during the Obama presidency, and that executive action on deportations would undo that. When Earnest talks about "protecting the political viability of an issue that the president thinks is a top domestic priority, and that’s immigration reform," what we hear is a hope that Congress could still move on this issue. That would be nice, wouldn't it? But it's just not going to happen during this presidency. No formulation of nice words or delays in executive action are going to change that. The GOP is staunchly against immigration reform, for now. And the best way for this administration to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform does happen eventually -- 2017 or sometime beyond -- is for the Democrats to lock up as many Hispanic voters as possible and hope that "math" forces the Republicans to deal, in order to secure the survival of their party.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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