Choosing a Political Strategy to Get to Immigration Reform
I've seen two general reactions from pro-migrant bloggers, Tweeters, Dreamers, and politicos online since the DREAM Act was blocked in the Senate last week by anti-immigrant politicians.
One group believes the vote highlighted the fundamental divide between Democrats and Republicans on immigration policy. On this reading, Democrats are good and fight for the immigrant community, while Republicans are bad and fight to deport immigrants. Democrats want to enact legislation to bring immigrants out of the shadows, while Republicans prefer the status quo of early morning home raids, photos of Latinos in shackles and orange jumpsuits, and small children crying because their parents have been hauled off to the deportation gulag. President Obama, as the leader of the Democratic Party, wants immigrants to succeed and wants to legalize undocumented immigrants. Proponents of this view believe any attempt to add complexity to this narrative risks muddying the political calculus. You need more Democrats in office in order to pass immigration reform, and to do that, voters must reward Democrats and punish Republicans. Keep it simple or risk defeat.
The second group believes that both major parties share blame for terrorizing immigrant communities and keeping families in a legal twilight. True, the Republican party has been taken over by nativists and has turned its back on the growing Latino electorate. But Democrats never made any significant push to pass pro-migrant legislation while they held large majorities in both houses of Congress; instead, they snuck in votes on the DREAM Act only as the legislative session wound down. Meanwhile, a $600 million border enforcement bill breezed through Congress with strong support from both parties. Democrats in Congress never even introduced the comprehensive immigration reform bill they had long promised the community, instead engaging in a drawn-out procedural sleight of hand designed to fool constituents into thinking something was happening. Key Democrats voted against the DREAM Act in the Senate, dooming it for the foreseeable future. Democratic leadership never made passage of the bill a priority, never engaging in the armtwisting and horsetrading that led to success on other bills. President Obama directed ICE to deport immigrants in record numbers in what was either a futile effort to win Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform or a cynical strategy to keep nativists off his back so other policy priorities could move forward.
I am glad that Dreamers, through tough organizing and advocacy, were able to push Congress to at least vote on an immigration bill so individual politicians could be held accountable to voters. But I fall into the second school of thought on the partisan question. If Democrats want to be known as the pro-migrant political party, they have to actually be the pro-migrant party. Words matter less than actions.
True allies wouldn't target immigrant communities the way Democrats in Congress and the White House have done since Obama came into office. Another reason to make sure Democrats are real allies is because otherwise, they act as a massive clog to action.
When Democrats get the same credit for not doing anything to change the status quo as they would for actually passing laws, they are likely to do nothing because of:
- Institutional inertia
- Potentially politically damaging pushback from within ICE if Obama implements administrative reform
- Their investment in the "immigrants as criminals" narrative
Meanwhile, fake allies block real action by sucking up media attention and resources. They siphon off energy from communities that want real change, not campaign slogans.
Giving credit to Obama for jumping on the DREAM Act bandwagon at the last second after doing virtually nothing to campaign for it before late 2010, while he continues to deport DREAMers around the country, makes it likely that he'll continue to do what he's been doing: deporting DREAMers while doing little to push the DREAM Act forward. Failing to hold Obama accountable for being the principal antagonist of the immigrant community--each year deporting more than the year before, deporting Dreamers, presiding over a culture of abuse and impunity at DHS--ensures that he will continue in that role unchecked.
Senator Reid was a lukewarm ally until five Latin@ Dreamers got arrested in his office in July shortly before a tough election which depended on Latino voters coming out strong for him. Then he became a champion for the DREAM Act, pushing it into the national spotlight. Had he not been targeted and forced to be accountable to voters, had he not feared political death, I doubt the DREAM Act would have gotten as far as it did this year.
President Obama now wants to gain the political benefit of appearing to support immigrants without suffering the inconvenience of actually changing his behavior. To this, I'll cite Revelation 3:16 with the 2012 election in mind:
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.Democrats are on track to find out what voters do when they care strongly about an issue and their elected officials are only lukewarm.