There will be no comprehensive reform of this country’s broken immigration system until at least 2017, if then. There probably won’t be much of anything else the next two years, either. That is the unfortunate but real import of the executive order President Barack Obama issued Thursday shielding up to 5 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation. It represents a monumental failure of national leadership.
Obama’s directive so sours Republicans, soon to control both houses of Congress, that it will obscure their own failure of leadership on immigration. They are now not willing to give this president anything that might be considered a victory for him and the Democrats going into the presidential election year of 2016.
The history of the contentious immigration issue over the past six years is instructive to where we are today.
It was in July 2008 that candidate Obama pledged to make comprehensive immigration reform “a top priority in my first year as president.” He broke that promise in 2009, never even attempting immigration reform at the time his popularity and power were at their greatest.
It didn’t happen in 2010, either, nor in 2011, nor in 2012. Obama finally engaged on the issue last year but it was really a bipartisan coalition of senators who took the lead in fashioning an immigration reform bill passed by the Senate. It was anything but perfect but it marked an excellent starting point for negotiations with the House. But then it was House Republicans who did nothing in the final months of last year and again this year.
So Obama flipped and flopped. After saying repeatedly that he lacked the legal authority to use his executive power to block deportations, Obama has now done just that. He told the nation Thursday night that he does, indeed, have the legal authority and that he used it because Congress wouldn’t act.
His misdirected frustration betrays his cluelessness on leadership and what it takes to get big things done in a highly partisan and bitterly divided democracy.
And it leaves the broken immigration system still broken.
The reprieve he granted to millions could be just as easily rescinded by the next president. And the 6 million or so undocumented immigrants not impacted by his orders are still in limbo. His action does nothing to create a badly needed system of legal seasonal agricultural workers. It does little to enhance border security. It does nothing to crack down on the “jobs magnet” — the employers who hire undocumented workers and so often take advantage of them. It does nothing to reform a visa system that prohibits high-tech companies in particular from being able to hire the skilled workers they need. It does nothing to create a path to citizenship that would truly enable undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and become more a part of the American fabric.
Obama’s speech was a good one. He made a compelling case for comprehensive immigration reform. It is tragic we will not now get it. In acting alone, he failed the test of leadership.