21/11/14; Nick O’Malley; US correspondent for Fairfax Media
Barack Obama appealed to Americans’ sense of fairness, good sense, patriotism and even to scripture in announcing plans to allow up to five million undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and remain in the US.
“We need more than politics as usual when it comes to immigration; we need reasoned, thoughtful, compassionate debate that focuses on our hopes, not our fears,” he said in a live address to the nation from the White House on Thursday evening. “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.”
Minutes later the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, responded via Twitter that the President had, “cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left”.
The Republican former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said: “I just returned from a trip to England where I was reminded of why Americans fled the tyranny of King George. Now Americans are subjected to the tyrannical actions of ‘Emperor Obama’, with his wholly unconstitutional executive action on immigration.”
None of this – neither Obama’s speech nor the vehement response – came as a surprise. It did, however, mark the resumption of full-blown hostilities between the White House and congressional Republicans that some believe could lead to another government shutdown.
Obama’s original platform included immigration reform. An estimated 11.7 million people live illegally in America. Many have raised children here; many others were brought here as young children and know no other life.
It has long been the goal of progressives and some branches of the Republican Party – especially employers groups and Wall Street – to find a way to grant large sections of that population a “pathway to citizenship”, a way to declare themselves and eventually become legal residents.
After the Republican Party lost the 2012 presidential election, in part due to the overwhelming support of America’s Latino and broader immigrant population for Obama, it appeared to have come to a consensus in support immigration reform.
The party’s election autopsy called for immigration reform and its media cheer squad seemed intent on convincing the right of its merits. They had ample material to help make their case.
Research shows bringing undocumented workers into the system would increase tax revenue by nearly $2.9 billion, while increasing overall economic output and spurring broader wage rises. It would also allow the nation to benefit from the costs it had incurred in educating many undocumented immigrants in the first place.
The Senate passed a reform bill and waited for the Republican-dominated house to act on it. Observers found it had the numbers to win. Instead, the Republican House leadership, spooked by growing outrage on the Tea Party far right of its party, lost its resolve and refused to even allow a vote on the measure.
Obama, who had avoided the showdown he has now begun in part to give the Republican leadership time to act, has lost his patience. Democrats were clobbered in the mid-term elections, partly because their own base voters – many of them those very same Latinos and immigrant communities who expected immigration reform – did not bother turning out.
In his speech Obama acknowledged that only Congress, not the White House, has the authority to define or extend citizenship.
Instead, he said, he would use his powers to direct federal agencies on which groups to target for deportation. From now on federal agents would target “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritise, just like law enforcement does every day.”
Positioning himself as a moderate and centrist on this issue, Obama said: “Let’s be honest – tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you. It’s also not who we are as Americans.”
Addressing the immigrants directly, he said: “We’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve been in America for more than five years, if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents, if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
And to Republicans in Congress who opposed his actions, he said: “I have one answer: pass a bill. I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution. And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary.”
Anticipating the retaliation that will surely follow, Obama called on Republicans not to “let a disagreement over a single issue be a deal breaker on every issue. “That’s not how our democracy works, and Congress certainly shouldn’t shut down our government again just because we disagree on this. Americans are tired of gridlock.”
It is hard to know if this was a genuine appeal for co-operation or simple political positioning. Clearly if the move does provoke Republicans to use budgetary measures to shut down the government, Obama wants them to cop the blame.
Republicans insist that Obama has overreached, illegally snatching congressional power for the executive. Democrats respond that not only is Obama acting within his authority, but in accordance with precedence set by presidents including Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Legal scholars so far largely side with Obama.
How it will play out in the long run – beyond even uglier politics in Washington, DC, – remains to be seen. So far the Democratic Party appears fairly united on the issue, and shortly after the speech Hillary Clinton, widely expected to be the party’s lead candidate in 2016, offered her support for the measure.
The news can’t be good for moderate Republicans hoping to run. Earlier this year Jeb Bush shocked the party when he suggested that a father bringing a hungry child across the US border illegally was committing an “act of love”. He now faces a Republican base howling with rage over the issue. Obama, as he says so often, has no more races to run. He is going about his business, making good on promises, seeking to build a legacy from a presidency marked by bitter discord and strife.
USA, Migrants & Refugees