At the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 37th Annual Awards Gala in October, President Barack Obama promised: “I Am Not Going to Give Up This Fight Until It Gets Done.” That fight, of course, is immigration reform.
The president cataloged the steps his administration has taken to improve the lives of the country’s sizable immigrant population. At the macro level, he boasted of the millions of jobs that have been created over the past four and a half years, “the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history,” and the fact that the U.S. economy grew at its fastest pace since 2006 in the second quarter. With specific focus on his audience, he detailed how his administration has cut the “the Latino dropout rate by more than half,” while boosting the rate of college enrollment among young Latinos by 45%. Plus, “the actions that we’ve taken so far are why more than 600,000 young people can live and work without fear of deportation,” he added. However, these accomplishments were the mere introduction to his main point: Immigration reform must happen, even without the input of Congress.
Obama has pledged to take executive action on immigration before the year’s end. But even though he acknowledged that lasting reform required bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, Obama stated he would do as much to fix the system as he could on his own. “The fact of the matter is no matter how bold I am, nothing I can do will be as comprehensive or lasting as the Senate bill. Anything I can do can be reversed by the next President,” he said. “To move beyond what I can do in a limited way, we are going to need legislation.” And — as in all the president’s speeches bemoaning a lack of progress in the economic recovery, job creation, and addressing climate change — Republicans were painted as obstructionists.
Tuesday’s midterm congressional elections represent an inflection moment for the Obama administration’s immigration fight. The White House is expected to announce immigration relief — the administration’s first post-election agenda item — in the coming weeks, thus fulfilling his promise to solve the broken immigration system through executive action. “And so I am going to be spending the next month, month and a half, six weeks, eight weeks — I’m going to be spending that time not just talking about what we’ve done for the economy, but explaining why immigration reform is good for our economy, and why it’s good for everybody,” Obama said at the awards gala.
Immigration reform has hardly been the defining moment of this year’s midterm elections, which themselves have been short on detailed policy debates. But this is not to say a candidate’s position on comprehensive immigration reform is unimportant to voters. A number of Republicans have taken on a markedly more conservative stance on immigration reform, even though less than two years ago the Republican leadership was working on an important overhaul, in part to appeal to Hispanic voters. And this shift in focus has largely been driven by the massive influx of unaccompanied minors from Central American crossing the border the summer. Ahead of this year’s midterms, incumbent Republicans campaigned solely on increased border security, with advertisements highlighting how Democrats have supported “amnesty.” Fears of ISIS fighters and Ebola crossing over the porous boarder with Mexico have also cropped up in a few ads.
Even a few Democrats in tough races have narrowed their opinions on immigration reform.
According to a study conducted by by Brookings’ Center for Effective Public Management, Democrats emphasized Obamacare, climate change, the minimum wage, immigration and taxes, while Republicans emphasized Obamacare, taxes, the debt, regulations, and immigration.
Still, even though immigration is a polarizing issue, no politician campaigned with a solution, meaning immigration reform (likely through executive action) will be back on Obama’s agenda after the November 4 election.
Why did immigration reform stall?
In June, Obama planned to ink new immigration legislation by summer’s end. But in an election season characterized by both record-high voter disinterest and dissatisfaction with elected leaders, Democrats chose to press pause on the immigration reform campaign. Even while Obama has pressured Congress to pass legislation overhauling United States immigration laws, Senate Democrats warned the president that executive action would hurt the chances of several shaky Democrat incumbent lawmakers, including Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, running for reelection in southern states, where Obama is increasingly unpopular and where immigration reform is not seen as an urgent issue.
During a September interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, the president defended his decision to postpone executive action. “When I take executive action, I want to make sure that it’s sustainable,” Obama said. “What I’m saying is that I’m going to act because it’s the right thing for the country. But it’s going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we’ve done on unaccompanied children [on the southern border], and why it’s necessary.” But still his response did not settle allegations levied by Republicans that his postponement was purely political in nature. “There is a never a right time for the president to declare amnesty by executive action,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican claimed. But the decision to “simply delay this deeply-controversial and possibly unconstitutional unilateral action until after the election — instead of abandoning the idea altogether — smacks of raw politics.”
Here’s what Obama’s immigration plan will likely include
The White House website delineates a multi-step plan for “creating an immigration system for the 21st century.” It includes a continuation of efforts to strengthen border security and infrastructure; cracking down “more forcefully” on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers; creating a program for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States to earn citizenship through the payment of back taxes and the learning of English; and a strategy allowing for simple and efficient legal immigration for “anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules,” through a proposal to eliminate the backlog for employment-sponsored immigration by eliminating annual country caps and adding additional visas to the system. This is essentially the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June 2013 by an extremely partisan vote of 68 to 32, before dying in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. It was drafted by a mixed group of Republican and Democratic senators known as the “Gang of Eight,” which includes Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Democrat Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and Chuck Schumer of New York. Opponents of the legislation called it the amnesty bill.
While Obama is expected to create more specific programs through an executive order, speculation as to what those policies will be specifically remains intense. Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of the pro-reform group America’s Voice, believes Obama’s executive action will dramatically reshape U.S. immigration law. “He’s going to go for it. And he’s going to be rolling a hand grenade in the middle of American politics that is going to explode,” he told HuffPost’s Elise Foley. “I think he is playing to history more than the immediate politics.”
The biggest element of an Democrat-led comprehensive immigration reform is how to handle those immigrants in America illegally. Sources told The Wall Street Journal that the White House is debating how broadly to draw the two central requirements — a minimum length of time in the United States and that person’s family ties in this country — that will decide how many of the country’s 11 million immigrants will receive protections through executive action. In addition to creating deportation relief for millions of Americans (the exact number is unknown), the president could also expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by an administration memorandum in 2012, which enabled illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as young children to apply for two years of deportation protection and work permits. These are individuals who would have benefited from the DREAM ACT, a bill first introduced in 2001 that would have given conditional permanent residence to immigrants who arrived as minors, graduated from U.S. high schools, and lived in the United States continuously for five years before its passage. Obama’s plan be slightly different, but it is still believed the executive order will allow some unauthorized immigrants to be protected from deportation and be allowed to work, without providing legal status.
It is also unknown how many undocumented immigrants will be given protection; it could range from the low millions to the 8 million who would have qualified for legal status under the bill passed by the Senate in June 2013 to all 11 million. Most policymakers calculate that the number of immigrants will be a small subset of the total. Democrat Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, an advocate for immigration reform via executive action, told MSNBC’s Morning Joe that deferred action could be extended to “3, 4, maybe even 5 million” immigrants. And this could include unauthorized farmworkers, unauthorized immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens or green-card holders or who have children that are U.S. citizens, and other unauthorized immigrants with children under 18. Of course immigrants will not automatically qualify for legal status if they fit in these categories; there will also be a set of criteria regarding time in the United States and criminal records.
Advocates are worried that if the administration limits the program to immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least ten years, millions will be disqualified.
What worries Republicans?
Simply put, amnesty. Tea Party Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has been very active in the days leading up to the election, and his focus has been decrying Obama’s plan to provide what he called illegal amnesty. “Today, we’re facing a humanitarian crisis of 90,000 unaccompanied children at the border, along with growing national security threats,” Cruz wrote in an opinion piece for USA Today. “We should welcome and celebrate legal immigrants who follow the rules, and at the same time honor the will of the people and prevent any more illegal amnesty.” And it is his view that allowing immigrants who violated U.S. law to become legal residents hurts blue-collar American workers. Therefore, immigration reform that does not create a path to citizenship is a key tenet of his plan of action for the Senate after the midterm elections, which are expected to create a Republican majority. And with that greater power, Republicans could push for increases in border-security enforcement.
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