Can Obama and a Red Congress Pass Immigration Reform?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Securing our borders, enforcing our laws, and making the process of becoming a legal immigrant fairer will in fact help America remain a magnet for the brightest minds and the hardest workers in the world,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in June of 2013.

“Everybody knows that our current immigration system is broken. Across the political spectrum, people understand that. We’ve known it for years. It’s not smart to invite some of the brightest minds from around the world to study here and then not let them start businesses here,” said President Barack Obama in October of 2013.

Clearly there is common ground between the parties — and between the presidency and GOP — on the need for immigration reform, and there has been for quite some time. However, as they say, “if wishes were horses, we’d all ride,” or “if wishes were votes, Sen. Ted Cruz would have elected himself president already,” as I like to say. With elections over and Republicans having taken the majority in the Senate and House — ultimately ensuring at least some head-butting between Obama and the Republican leadership — it’s time to return to old efforts at reform for another try. The question is, will things be any better, any less gridlocked, any more cooperative, this time around?

To answer that, we want to look at three things: National and party sentiment based on polls from PewResearch, Republican’s preparedness for compromise based on party leader commentary, and recent comments from President Barack Obama on the election and on immigration policy.

Pew Research’s examination of exit polling stats showed about what you’d expect in terms of party priorities and disagreement on immigration. Polls showed a strong divide on party lines, not a unique situation but apparently an enduring one. Of those polled, only 23% of Democrats said illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be deported, while 74% of Republicans said the same.

Conversely, only 34% of Republicans said they should be allowed to apply for legal status, while 64% of Democrats disagreed. As shown below, priorities in terms of what needs to be done are also at odds, with border security of more import for Republicans than Democrats, and with the left more focused on a pathway to citizenship and a balanced approach between the two (45% think both methods need attention compared to the 36% of Republicans). FT_14.11.7_immigration1

On the issue of Obama’s next move — specifically whether or not he should go forward with his plan to enact change through an executive order — a slight majority is in favor of executive action (52%) with 44% against it.

President Obama, for his part, has indicated that he will be making moves on his own, but that he hopes to see more permanent action from Congress. The question is whether or not that will be possible. Planning to take executive action isn’t exactly getting things off to a good start. “The fact is, that we wouldn’t have gotten health care passed if there wasn’t a whole bunch of arm twisting. We would not have been able to make progress on the deficit if I hadn’t been willing to cut some deals with Republicans pointedly warning against such action,” Obama said.

It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” said likely majority-leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.) according to the NYT.

When you play with matches you take the risk of burning yourself” said John Boehner (R-Ohio) according to Huffington Post, “and he’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path.”

In an interview with “Face the Nation” on CBS, Obama made it fairly clear that burn or no burn, it’s a path he plans to go down. “Everyone agrees the immigration system is broken, and we’ve been talking about it for years now in terms of fixing it,” said Obama, saying the wait had gone on long enough. While this might start things off on the wrong foot with Republicans in terms of immigration reform, he flashed other signals during the interview that suggest he and his administration may be more flexible and proactive this time around; more willing to do the political gymnastics he’s been criticized for failing on in the past. “There is a tendency sometimes for me to start thinking, as long as I get the policy right, that’s what should matter,” he admitted during the interview. “And you know, people have asked, what do you need to do differently going forward,” said Obama, explaining one change he and his administration need to work on is to remember that “we’ve got to sell it. We’ve got to reach out to the other side and where possible, persuade. And I think there are times, there’s no doubt about it, where I think we have not been successful in going out there.”

“So there is a failure of politics there that we’ve got to improve on,” Obama said, “no matter how frustrating it can sometimes be for any president to deal with an opposition that is pretty stubborn and where there are really strong differences, you just got to keep on trying.”

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