Immigration reform delayed: Three things to remember

The reaction to the news that President Barack Obama would delay his unspecified unilateral executive action on immigration reform until after November’s midterm elections was predictable and swift.

Immigration activists were bitter, angry and sad all at once. Obama’s delay means the president’s heretofore vigorous deportations would continue apace for at least several months, when they had been looking forward to a slowing, if not a halt, to the practice. Families will continue to be separated, and the elusive promise of some kind of reform will once more be deferred.

Political pundits were predictable: It’s all about the elections. Had Obama acted, he would have hurt vulnerable Senate Democrats in several states where the issue has potency, and possibly cost them control of the Senate. (Ironically enough, it is the Senate that produced and passed a bi-partisan immigration reform bill that has since languished in the House, where continued Republican control is all but certain.)

The lessons to be learned here are threefold:

1. When it comes to maintaining political power or helping a vulnerable constituency, political leaders will always choose power. Yes, Obama is a master of empathy, and has (or, increasingly, had) the power to make people believe he cares about them, their problems and their needs. But the reality is, politicians want to stay in power, and that goal is almost always more important than policy.

What’s that, you ask? The Affordable Care Act was a risk that could have made Obama a one-term president? That was an act of political courage that put a second Obama term in jeopardy? It would be a good point — if the reform had resulted in a single-payer system, or at least contained a public option in the final product.

Activists need to remember something: Politicians will love you, court you and try to help you only insofar as you can help or hurt them, with your grassroots efforts, your money and your votes. As cynical as it sounds, don’t ever believe any of them really care about you. Because even if they actually do, they will always care more about political self-preservation. If you learn and remember that lesson, you will never be disappointed.

2. When it comes to finding a solution to immigration, we must prefer the permanent to the pragmatic. Let’s say Obama had decided to fulfill his promise to act by the end of the summer. Activists would have cheered, and there would undoubtedly have been short-term benefits: keeping families together, lifting the fear of deportation from thousands, if not millions, of people who have called the United States home, some for decades. Problem solved, right?

Hardly. The problems of executive actions are twofold: One, they’re vulnerable to legal challenge in the short term, as we saw with the president’s disastrous non-recess recess appointments scheme, rejected 9-0 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Two, they’re entirely malleable in the long term. The moment a new president gets elected, those orders can change. (Witness the so-called abortion “gag rule,” which is imposed or withdrawn with regularity depending on the party affiliation of the occupant of the White House.)

It’s increasingly unlikely, but let’s say a Republican president with strong anti-illegal immigration views were to be elected in 2016, running in part on Obama’s alleged “lawlessness” with regard to taking executive action. That president could sign a new executive order before the echoes of “Hail To the Chief” died on the Capitol Mall, ordering a resumption of deportations forthwith. And the security that immigrant families thought they had would vanish in an instant.

This is why we need permanent action by Congress, via statute, through the regular order of business. The fact is, Republicans — and only Republicans — have stubbornly refused to participate in that process, not only by ignoring the Senate-passed bill, but by refusing to even act on bills by their own members on the subject.

Inevitably, they will face the consequences of those actions, as the growing Hispanic voting bloc continues to give its support to Democrats, and Republican outreach efforts are drowned out by the deafening failure to act on this all-important issue. Sooner or later, the GOP will either get the message, or it will lose its majority. (Democrats hope it’s the latter, which is why the standoff serves a political and fundraising purpose for them.) Either way, reform will eventually be enacted. But unless it’s enacted in the right way, it will never be — as Obama said on “Meet the Press” Sunday — “sustainable.”

In the meantime, elected officials such as U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Dina Titus — both of whom put out statements saying they supported presidential executive action in the face of continued Republican obstruction — need to remember that understandable frustration should not make them yield their obligation to see a real, permanent solution to the problem.

3. We’ve yet to see what executive action means. Because Obama has delayed his executive action, we don’t know what it is, which makes a great deal of the chatter about it pure speculation. We know the president himself has said he lacks the authority to simply halt all deportations, as many activists would prefer. And while he clearly has the authority to delay or prioritize the order of deportations, unless the law is changed, he has the constitutional obligation to see that it’s faithfully enforced.

House Speaker John Boehner is ironically suing the president because Obama unilaterally delayed a provision of the Affordable Care Act when the law didn’t grant him the explicit authority to do so. But if Obama actually were to stop all deportations, he might actually be credibly accused of failing to fulfill his constitutional responsibility, thus giving rise to a legitimate complaint. (Such a complaint would have to be resolved through impeachment, however, not a lawsuit.)

It’s most likely Obama means to do something less than halting all deportations, say, extending his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to entire families. Again, it’s arguably within his authority to do that (and focus on sending immigrants who have committed crimes or repeatedly entered the U.S. without authorization) back instead. But exactly how far he goes is open to question. And let’s hope the legal justification he cites are more solid than the laughable memo that he claimed allowed him to make those recess appointments.

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