President Obama’s stunning comeback on immigration

Rally for Immigration Reform, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2010

Rally for Immigration Reform, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2010

Americans might be calling President Barack Obama the Comeback Kid. After historic mid-term election losses for his Democratic Party just over two weeks ago, President Obama, with a 15-minute announcement last night, has now maneuvered himself into the position of (a) going on offense by taking action on immigration reform; (b) igniting the hopes and the hearts of millions of Latino Americans, who comprise one of the fasting growing voting blocs in the U.S.; and (c) making the Republicans look both lazy and mean at the same time.

President Obama had warned Congressional Republicans well in advance that he would take executive action on immigration reform if the Republicans could not get their act together, and Obama made good on his promise last night. Specifically, Obama announced that, in addition to increased border security and provisions regarding green cards for high-skilled workers, his administration would use its enforcement discretion to delay deportation of illegal immigrants (Obama referred to them by the more liberal term “undocumented immigrants”) who (a) have been in the U.S. at least five years, (b) have children who are American citizens or legal residents, (c) come forward and disclose their illegal status; (d) pay their required taxes.

Obama used brilliant framing in his immigration announcement, taking a page from the Republicans and portraying his action as pro-family. Obama asked the rhetorical question:

Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?

And for once, other Democrats echoed President Obama’s positive message. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came out yesterday, flanked by fellow Democratic Senators, and stated:

It’s important to remember what this issue is all about. It’s not about Democrats versus Republicans, or the Republicans versus the President. It’s about families all across America, who worry every day about being torn apart. It’s about saying to good, law-abiding people, ‘you will not have to spend another holiday season worrying if this will be your last together.’ … This is a decision to tell innocent children they will not be pulled away from their parents’ arms.

Obama also covered all his bases. He stressed his tough enforcement of illegal immigration, which includes a record pace of deportations. Obama then added:

… we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.

Moreover, Obama’s immigration announcement targeted Republicans, in particular the House of Representatives run by Speaker John Boehner and the Republican majority. Obama said that the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill with 68 votes well over a year ago, but that Boehner and the Republicans had done nothing to vote on the Senate bill, or their own version, in the House. Obama said he would welcome Congressional action on immigration reform (“I have one answer: Pass a bill”), but, with House Republicans doing nothing and most everyone across the political spectrum recognizing that “our immigration system is broken,” he had to act now.

Furthermore, President Obama pointed out that he has historical precedent on his side:

The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century.

Indeed, Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush took similar executive actions on immigration during their terms in office. In this respect, President Obama was also fighting for the office of the Presidency against a power grab by Republicans in Congress who said that Obama could not do what his Republican predecessors had done without objection.

Even the Republican majority U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 appeared to uphold a President’s discretion over deportation (which they termed “removal”):

A principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials. Federal officials, as an initial matter, must decide whether it makes sense to pursue removal at all.

Obama also used the Reaganesque tactic of making immigration reform personal. Last night, Obama told the story of:

… a young woman named Astrid Silva. Astrid was brought to America when she was four years old…. Her father worked in landscaping. Her mother cleaned other people’s homes. They wouldn’t let Astrid apply to a technology magnet school for fear the paperwork would out her as an undocumented immigrant – so she applied behind their back and got in. Still, she mostly lived in the shadows – until her grandmother, who visited every year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn’t travel to the funeral without risk of being found out and deported. It was around that time she decided to begin advocating for herself and others like her, and today, Astrid Silva is a college student working on her third degree. Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid – or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in?

As a final move in co-opting language and tactics from the Republicans, President Obama even cited the Bible:

Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.

So now Republicans are left in the position of trying to explain why (a) they still can’t pass an immigration reform bill that would supercede President Obama’s executive action; (b) they want to rip families apart where one or both parents may have come to the U.S. illegally but their children have grown up, gone to school and maybe even held jobs as good Americans; (c) their version of “outreach” to Latino voters is to be mean and heartless; and (d) they want to spend more time fighting political and legal battles against President Obama on immigration instead of addressing the illegal immigration problem.

President Obama’s tactical move against the Republicans on immigration, coming just days after being written off by many as a “lame duck,” seems so complete that it raises the question, why couldn’t he do this before the elections?

Photo by Sasha Kimel, used under Creative Commons license.

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