By Mark Salter
The air is charged. Distant rumblings grow louder. President Obama is promising to do by executive order what Congress has not done: allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain in this country. And if media accounts forecasting the reaction to such a move are accurate, a political firestorm is heading our way, which could include another government shutdown and calls for impeachment hearings — this time from responsible quarters.
Perhaps the president will act less precipitously than expected, disappointing immigration advocates and businesses that rely on immigrant labor, but averting a constitutional crisis. And were he to exercise prudence, millions of illegal immigrants would remain in this country anyway.
No other issue displays so distinctly the embarrassing silliness of our politics than Washington’s inability to do anything serious about modernizing our immigration laws. Eleven million or more immigrants are in this country without proper papers. Some of them surreptitiously crossed the border. Some simply outstayed their visas. One thing is certain, no matter what the president or Congress does or does not do, most of them will remain in this country for the rest of their lives, as will their children and their children’s children. We simply don’t have the means or the will to force the economic and social disruptions that rounding them all up and deporting them would entail. And we never will.
Oh, but we will fuss and stew and demagogue and threaten and shake our fists at the heavens over the injustice of letting them remain here or the injustice of keeping them “in the shadows.” Then we will leverage the issue to keep our political opponents at a disadvantage, and rail some more.
A smart recent story in The Washington Post smartly sums up the current state of play: The president is apparently prepared before congressional elections in November to cease deportations of illegal immigrants and issue new green cards for high-tech workers from abroad.
I’d be surprised if so sweeping an attempt to circumvent the will (or in this case lack of will) of Congress would survive a court challenge. Regardless of the legal equation, there will be political ramifications.
In the long run, unilateral executive action might solidify overwhelming Hispanic support for the Democratic Party for generations. In the short run — meaning the 2014 midterm elections — the prospect of Obama’s intervention worries Democratic Senate candidates running in red or purple states with low numbers of Hispanic voters.
Republican opponents of immigration reform, Democrats darkly whisper to the press and Republican leaders anonymously fret, are readying to stand at Armageddon. But salivating over the demagoguery of Ted Cruz and Steve King, calling for Obama’s impeachment, and tying up a budgetary continuing resolution through the election will never force Obama to back down.
Actually, that is precisely what Obama hopes they will do because it might serve as the deus ex machina that limits Republican election gains. I’m not an admirer of the president, but he’s intelligent enough and cynical enough to recognize that while he is not popular with independent-minded voters at the moment, he doesn’t scare the hell out of them, as does the Republican crazy caucus. We haven’t been labeled “the stupid party” without reason, as was demonstrated the last time Republicans shut down the government to get the president to do what he had zero political interest in doing. Whenever Sen. Cruz or Rep. King appear as the face of the party, we lose –and badly.
What makes all this more ridiculous is that of all the problems facing our political system, our broken immigration system should be the easiest to repair. The outlines of fair, sensible, and workable comprehensive reform are well known, and contained in the legislation passed by a bipartisan majority in the Senate last year. In a nutshell, it provided more resources to strengthen border security while recognizing the obvious and economically advantageous necessity of legalizing the status of people who have come to this country for a better life, are contributing importantly to it, and are never going to leave.
That Senate measure had the support of important constituencies in both political parties. Liberals supported it. Many conservatives did, too. Business supported it. Religious leaders supported it. In poll after poll, so did consistent majorities of Americans. None of that is surprising, since the bill was perceived by most people who looked at it as a common-sense approach to a problem that shouldn’t be that hard to solve. But those kind of people — sensible, public-spirited problem solvers — don’t have much influence in the nation’s capital these days.
Washington has become the place — more than it has been in generations past, I think — where people who would rather do anything than solve a problem go to be important. They are silly, useless people, who thrive by dramatizing their failings and appealing to the worst in the rest of us. They are leading a great nation toward mediocrity. We shouldn’t let them.