I hope to write much more about immigration reform as the debate unfolds. But the question that progressives conveniently ignore is the question of who undocumented immigrants actually have in their corner.
The myth of the liberal Democrat extends to immigration. Listen to progressives, and Republicans are cruel xenophobic reactionaries happy to allow businesses to exploit undocumented labor, while Democrats like Obama defend the human rights of the oppressed. Interesting, then, that, as President, Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that ultimately provided amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants:
Reagan "knew that it was not right for people to be abused," Simpson says. "Anybody who's here illegally is going to be abused in some way, either financially [or] physically. They have no rights."
Reagan said [so] in a televised debate with Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale in 1984.
"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally," he said.
Obama's contribution to the debate involves a proposal for how undocumented immigrants could gain citizenship. US law requires green card holders to wait five years before becoming a citizen; Obama's path to a green card is a whopping 8 years--not including the five year waiting period. By contrast, Reagan's path to a green card took just 18 months. Remember, this is just a proposal; Obama has to expect Republicans to try to pull his proposal further to the right and make it more difficult to become a citizen.
Why would Obama's undocumented immigration be far more conservative than Reagan's? Because Obama does not want undocumented immigrants to become citizens. As a Senator, he helped kill an immigration amnesty bill in 2007. Clearly, amnesty for undocumented immigrants is not a goal of his. Remember, the 2007 amnesty bill that Obama helped torpedo was the handiwork then-President George W. Bush:
Dashing the hopes of millions of immigrants seeking legal status...
the bill fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed in the 100-member Senate to advance toward a final vote.
A crestfallen Bush conceded defeat and said he was moving on to other issues such as balancing the federal budget when it became clear the immigration legislation would not be revived during the final 18 months of his two-term presidency.
"A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find common ground. It didn't work," said Bush
Recall also the amnesty bill proposed by Republican Senator John McCain shortly before his 2008 Presidential run.
There are many things a president cannot do without Congress--such as granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants. But President Obama does have some power over deportations, which proceeded at such a rapid pace that Obama managed to deport more immigrants in just 3.5 years in office than George W. Bush did in his first 6.5 years in office. Obama's pretence of only deporting criminals is simply false; less than half of those deported had committed a felony, and many were guilty of nothing more than a traffic violation.
Perhaps Obama's position has evolved; he did grant deferred action for law-abiding undocumented immigrants who were brought into the US by their parents as children. Two points are worth considering, however. First, if Obama was in support of helping undocumented immigrants, why not protect those who entered the country as adults? Because even conservatives have a modicum of understanding for those who were brought into this country by their parents, without having a choice in the matter, and were too young to be expected to return to their country of origin. Second, if this was a priority for Obama, why did not do it early in his first term (as he had the power to do) instead of waiting until just before an election?
Not too long ago, I sat down with a senior member of President Obama’s political team. Talk turned, as it often does, to the election, and the official said something that surprised me: If the president wins, this official thought that we would look back after the election and pinpoint the day the administration announced their new policy on deportations as the day the election was won.
Clearly, undocumented immigrants have managed to make their cause a political necessity. Republicans, having solidly lost the Latino vote, now recognize that their future platforms must be appealing to Latinos--or they will never win back the presidency. And, Obama apparently had doubts that he could win enough of the Latino vote to win the election without doing something concrete on undocumented immigration. So Obama bent to political pressure and instituted deferred action; he only did so because he thought he might lose the election, not because he was a bleeding heart liberal. That is how democracy is supposed to work--voters should hold politicians accountable in this way. But Obama is not a liberal when it comes to undocumented immigration.