Obama’s failed promise of a first-year immigration overhaul
“When we talked about immigration reform in the first year, that’s before the economy was on the verge of collapse ...”
“And so we had to take a whole series of emergency actions to make sure that we put people back to work — cutting taxes for middle-class families and small businesses so that they could stay open or pay the bills; making sure that states got assistance so they didn’t have to lay off teachers and firefighters and police officers; saving an auto industry that was on the brink of collapse. And so that took up a huge amount of time in the first year.”
“And what I confess I did not expect — and so I’m happy to take responsibility for being naive here — is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform — my opponent in 2008, who had been a champion of it and who attended these meetings — suddenly would walk away. That’s what I did not anticipate.”
— President Obama during a town hall interview hosted by Univision and Facebook, Sept. 20, 2012
Polls show President Obama maintaining a clear and consistent advantage over challenger Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters, but an interview last week on the Spanish-language television network Univision suggested that the current administration has left something to be desired with the demographic.
Univision anchor Jorge Ramos held Obama accountable for a promise the former Illinois senator made during his 2008 bid for office, when he said, “I can guarantee that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support.”
“I want to emphasize ‘the first year,’ ” Ramos said. “At the beginning of your governing, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise.”
The president acknowledged only that he was naive to think Republicans would negotiate with him on immigration, and he excused his lack of progress on the issue by saying he spent most of his first-year dealing with an economic crisis.
Let’s take a look at Obama’s inaugural year in the White House and his record on immigration to determine whether his statements tell the whole story. Did his promise fail to materialize because of Republicans and the economy, or does the president deserve some blame here?
Obama said repeatedly during his 2008 campaign that “presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time.” That’s the standard he set for himself: No excuses; presidents just have to juggle.
Obama turned to that line frequently as the economy started to nosedive around September 2008. He even used it once to rebuff Sen. John McCain’s suggestion that the two candidates postpone a presidential debate to help lawmakers reach a bailout deal for the financial sector. “It is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once,” the Democratic candidate said.
Obama unquestionably inherited an economy in tatters, but his predecessor signed a major piece of legislation to stave off complete collapse before leaving office. President George W. Bush approved the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which provided about $700 billion in bailout money for the auto and financial industries. (Many people believe Obama was responsible for TARP, but his administration only managed the program once it was in place).
The Obama administration, along with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, implemented additional measures to deal with the continuing recession when the new president took office. Perhaps the most notable bill was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which authorized about $833 billion for investments in infrastructure, education, health, clean energy and for helping states balance their budgets. It also included temporary tax breaks.
Obama approved the Recovery Act less than a month after taking office. And while his administration had to manage the resulting stimulus programs and their many complicated layers, the president was free to lead further legislative negotiations.
So, what else did Obama accomplish with Congress during his first year? He enacted a bill in May 2009 that allowed bankruptcy judges to modify loans to help people keep their homes; he signed legislation in November to extend unemployment benefits and tax credits for first-time homebuyers; and he approved a $3 billion “cash for clunkers” program in June that provided tax incentives for drivers to buy more fuel-efficient cars.
Administratively, the Obama White House also had to manage the restructuring and bankruptcy processes for GM and Chrysler, although most of that work was wrapped up by July 2009. (We explored how those deals unfolded in a previous column.)
Obama said during his Univision interview that he was too consumed by economic problems to tackle other big issues. But he launched the effort to overhaul the nation’s health-care system in March of that year, telling the audience at a White House forum that a plan was likely to be in place before Congress’s summer recess. That was less than two months after taking office.(Reuters produced a handy timeline of how the health law came about).
For what it’s worth, the president’s first law, which he signed nine days after taking office, was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to sue employers over pay discrimination.
As for immigration, Obama called for comprehensive reform in June 2009. But the likelihood of any progress on that front was slim, with the president and lawmakers already haggling over big issues such as health care, financial regulation and energy policy.
A report from the New York Times noted that the Obama administration showed virtually no will to lead on the issue.
Here’s what the Times said about the matter:
“Aides to Mr. Obama say he does not intend to get out in front of any proposal until there is a strong bipartisan commitment to pass it. That stance has the potential to paralyze the process, since lawmakers are looking to him to use his bully pulpit, and high approval ratings, to help them fend off any political backlash among their constituents.”
The Times article noted that members of both parties at the time were leery of supporting an immigration overhaul with unemployment levels still high. It quoted Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) saying the government should enforce existing laws before considering changes, especially when “Congress is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to create new jobs, which should go to legal U.S. workers.”
The takeaway here is that Obama showed little will to lead on this issue during his first year, and many members of his own party seemed uninterested in comprehensive changes at that time — not just Republicans.
Let’s look at how Obama dealt with immigration after 2009, even though he promised to enact revisions during his first year.
The president mentioned immigration only once during his 2010 State of the Union Address, saying, “We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system — to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation.”
Again, Obama offered no specific policy proposals on what needed to be done to reach a compromise.
This is in stark contrast to Bush, who delivered a prime-time television address outlining a five-point plan for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws in 2006. The former president talked in-depth about what he expected: A temporary worker program, criminal background checks for immigrants, biometric identification cards and requirements for a “pathway to citizenship” that would include paying taxes, learning English and proving several years of employment.
(UPDATE: A White House spokesman pointed out that the White House in May 2011 released a “Blueprint for Building a 21st Century Immigration System.” This shows that Obama, like Bush, provided specific proposals for immigration reform, but it does not affect our Pinocchio rating below, because the blueprint came out during the president's third year in office, not his first.)
One year after Bush’s address, the Senate filibustered the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, with 18 out of 46 Democrats voting against a cloture motion that would have pushed the bill to a vote.
Obama pressed for Congress to pass the DREAM Act before Republicans won the House majority during the 2010 midterm election. That bill would have made children of illegal immigrants — up to age 35 — eligible for residency so long as they are going to school or serving in the military and don’t have criminal records.
According to a report in The Washington Post, Obama lobbied lawmakers to support the measure, but the Senate failed to produce the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
In this case, four Democrats voted against cloture, helping to kill the measure. Once again, both parties were at fault for blocking changes to immigration law. In fact, five GOP lawmakers voted for cloture, which is more than the number of Democrats Obama failed to bring on board.
Meanwhile, Obama in 2010 enacted the health-care law, negotiated a bipartisan tax deal, gained approval for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and rallied enough support from members of both parties to repeal the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that prevented openly gay citizens from serving in the military.
Obama asked again for a bipartisan agreement to overhaul immigration laws after 2010, but Republicans demanded stricter border enforcement first. The two sides never made a concerted effort to forge an agreement, even though immigrant activists had recommended to the president several Republicans whom they thought would work toward a deal with him.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reached out to immigrant activists in April 2012 to begin crafting a bill similar to the DREAM Act, but Obama showed no interest in working with the Republicans on that. The president instead took unilateral action, using his executive authority to defer deportation proceedings for children of illegal immigrants so long as they meet certain requirements.
The Pinocchio Test
It’s clear that the Obama administration had its hands full overseeing various stimulus and bailout programs during its first year, but most of the heavy lifting was done before the end of summer. And the president signed the most important piece of stimulus legislation of his term — the Recovery Act — a month after taking office. This left plenty of time to hammer out deals on non-economic issues.
Overall, it’s an exaggeration for the president to suggest that he had no time to address immigration in 2009 — especially for someone who insisted that presidents have to deal with more than one thing at a time. He did, after all, set Congress on a path toward overhauling the health-care system that year, and he signed a law making it easier for women to sue employers over pay discrimination.
The fact that the president failed to lead on immigration or forge an agreement during his entire term shows that the issue ranked lower on his priority list than health care, the arms-reduction treaty, repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” and stopping pay discrimination toward women.
The president certainly faced opposition from Republicans and even members of his own party on this issue. But a guarantee is a guarantee, regardless of whether he miscalculated the will of Congress to compromise.
Obama failed to deliver on a promise, and he blamed Republicans instead of acknowledging any real responsibility for that failure. He earns two Pinocchios.
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