Obama as the Key to Action on Immigrant Rights: Why Obama?

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Some readers may wonder why I have spent so much time writing about Barack Obama and his action or inaction on immigration reform.

For example:

Obama Resumes Deportations to Ravaged Haiti
Obama and Fox News Latino Can't Have It Both Ways On Immigration
Pedro Gutierrez Asks President Obama to Defer His Deportation
Obama Praises DREAM Act While Deporting Dreamers
Obama: Deporting Immigrants So Republicans Don't Have To

And I'm not the only one:

Buyer Beware! Obama: The Deporter and Job Killer in Chief
"Obama is not the answer because he IS the problem"
Man the Deportations: Full Speed Ahead!
Halfway Through Term, Obama Still Hasn't Earned His Nobel Prize
Heroes and Zeroes of Immigrant Rights in 2010

... and many others.

But isn't the president a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act?

Didn't his Department of Justice sue Arizona to prevent implementation of the SB1070 racial profiling law?

Wouldn't it make more sense to spend time and energy pushing Republicans to compromise, to punish them politically for opposing comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act? Hasn't the real struggle moved away from federal legislation to the state and local level?

I think these are questions worth discussing, but I still believe the best national focus for action to achieve immigrant rights objectives is President Obama.

Each national politician who voted against the DREAM Act should be held accountable for betraying migrant youth. And there is a lot of work--both on offense and on defense--to be done on the state and local level.

But the immigrant rights movement should not neglect federal politicians or the 2012 presidential campaign, which has already begun.

First, Obama can be moved politically. The GOP's incentives are more mixed, and on balance run against supporting fair immigration reform.

Second, Obama has the power right now to take administrative action to ease the suffering of immigrant families. To put it another way, he has made a conscious political choice to increase punitive action against the immigrant community, ramping up deportations to levels never seen under the Bush administration. He has chosen NOT to take administrative action which previous administrations have made free use of, which is within the authority of the executive.

The Supreme Court in its 2005 Brand X decision gave President Bush unprecedented leeway to utilize executive power to interpret the laws without interference from the courts where Congress had left room for interpretation. Time after time, federal courts cited Brand X's deference to executive power to permit George Bush's Board of Immigration Appeals to make dubious immigration case law. Gary Endelman and Cyrus Mehta argue that there is no reason Brand X has to strike fear into the hearts of immigrants and their attorneys--a pro-migrant executive could use it to help rather than hurt immigrant communities. So far, President Obama has chosen not to do this.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, pushing Obama to become a true champion of the immigrant community would change the current political dynamic, cutting the issues clearly and pushing politicians and voters off the fence and onto one side or the other. Right now Obama wants to have one foot in the pro-migrant camp and one foot with the antis. He wants to offer words of support for the DREAM Act while continuing to deport Dreamers. He wants to appear to oppose Arizona's SB1070 while expanding federal programs like 287g and Secure Communities that encourage local law enforcement to racially profile immigrants.

This strategy wasn't accidentally selected, it isn't a purely reactive strategy masterminded by Republicans, though much of the Democrats' action on immigration policy has followed the path of least resistance. I believe the way Obama hopes it will work is that by deporting record numbers of immigrants and rolling out Secure Communities and e-Verify, he can promote himself as Deporter in Chief to white moderate voters. By supporting the DREAM Act and opposing SB1070, he triggers nativist opposition in the GOP. He can then claim by default to represent the pro-migrant party only because the other side is so much worse. Meanwhile, immigrant families continue to be torn apart in service of these cynical political goals.

The president's ambivalence and obfuscation is a massive hindrance to forming political conditions that would make immigration reform possible--even inevitable--in Congress. There are few real allies of immigrant communities in Congress, just a lot of fervent opponents and frenemies like the President. As long as these numbers hold up, immigration reform doesn't have a chance. The pro-migrant community should focus efforts on turning false champions into real ones.

Barack Obama, rather than DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, DHS Assistant Secretary John Morton, or Attorney General Eric Holder, is the right person to direct this message and action towards. Most Americans have never heard of Morton, most probably don't know who Napolitano is. These bureaucrats are not running for reelection in 2012, Obama is.

The strategy pursued by Dreamers during Senator Harry Reid's reelection campaign last year is a template that could be applied to the upcoming presidential race. In June 2010, Harry Reid stated publicly that he did not support a standalone DREAM Act separate from comprehensive reform. In July and August, he was aggressively lobbied by Dreamers, including five who were arrested for civil disobedience in his Washington office. Reid's staffers were furious that Democrats were being protested instead of Republicans. But then in September, he pushed the DREAM Act forward, promising to attach it to the defense authorization bill. In November, Latin@s voted in force and Reid won by a comfortable margin an election many had predicted he would lose. In December, Reid kept his campaign promise and brought the DREAM Act up for a vote as a standalone bill.

At some point last year, Harry Reid converted from a fair-weather friend of the DREAM Act to someone who had tied his political future to its fortunes. It was a risk--had Sharon Angle played her cards right, she might have used Reid's support for migrant youth against him more effectively in a tough anti-incumbent political climate. But his gamble paid off. And had he not taken the risk, Latin@ voters would not likely have come out so strongly and he very well could have lost the election.

Right now President Obama is in a similar position. He has not been an ally to immigrant communities, instead he has been their principal antagonist. Yet he wants the political gain of appearing to support immigrants without taking one side or another. But this strategy may well backfire if pro-migrant voters lose patience and recognize the two-faced nature of the President's support. Anti-immigrant voters are never going to vote for Obama. If pro-migrant voters stay home or vote for another candidate, Obama may be a one-term president. To avoid this outcome, Barack Obama should take a page from Senator Reid's campaign and pick a side in this debate.

But like Senator Reid, President Obama is unlikely to reach this conclusion on his own; he needs to face real pressure from the pro-migrant community.

Next: What can Obama do right now?


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In case you missed it, Barack Obama had this to say about immigration during his State of the Union address last night:One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are... Read More

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on January 25, 2011 10:05 PM.

The Democratic Strategy for Comprehensive Immigration Reform: What Went Wrong was the previous entry in this blog.

181 Words in the SOTU: Talking Pro-Migrant While Walking Nativist is the next entry in this blog.

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