“Well, as you know, he [Barack Obama] was president for the last three and a half years, did nothing on immigration. Two years, he had a Democrats’ House and Senate, did nothing of permanent or long-term basis.”
-- Mitt Romney during interview with Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” June 17, 2012
President Obama announced last Friday that his administration would no longer deport some illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Former governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, did not condemm or support Obama’s initiative, but criticized the president for failing to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform. Obama ”did nothing of permament or long-term basis,” he said.
Obama promised such reform while making his bid for the White House in 2008, and he has indeed failed to deliver on that pledge. But how much is the president to blame for the government’s inaction? After all, it takes more than just the executive to implement anything more than piecemeal reforms, and even then the options are limited.
Let’s review what’s happened with immigration reform during Obama’s term to determine whether the president has truly done “nothing.”
Obama pushed for passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act before Republicans won the House majority in November 2010. The bill would have made children of illegal immigrants -- technically up to age 35 -- eligible for residency if they attend college or serve in the military and don’t have criminal records.
Obama worked the phones to garner support for the measure, and a lame-duck House passed it by a vote of 216 to 198. But supporters in the Senate failed to produce the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster -- all but five Republicans voted against cloture, as did four Democrats.
Obama urged Congress to form a bipartisan coalition to enact comprehensive immigration reform after the GOP takeover of Congress, but he never really laid out precise terms for a potential agreement.
After two years in office, Obama had achieved record-high deportation and increased the number of federal agents patrolling the border, but he had no agreement for dealing with the nation’s 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants, many of whom have lived most of their lives in the U.S.
Hispanic activists met with Obama in March 2010 to warn the president that he was losing credibility within their community due to increased deportations and a host of other issues. Obama expressed some frustration of his own, arguing that Republicans were holding up immigration reform. “I am not a king,” he said, according to an article by The Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten.
By July 2010, many of the activists seemed to have grown tired of excuses, as they began demonstrating in front of the White House -- at least one who had met with the president in March was arrested.
Obama continued to plead with GOP lawmakers to enact bipartisan reform, but Republicans demanded stricter border enforcement first. By September 2011, the president’s approval rating among Hispanics dipped to 48 percent.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reached out to immigrant activists in April to work with him on a potential bill -- still unseen -- that would have some of the same effects as the DREAM Act. Obama accused the GOP of hypocrisy, noting that Senate Republicans rejected the DREAM Act unanimously less than two years earlier.
Last week, the president finally used his unilateral executive authority -- as kingly a move as the U.S. system allows -- to accomplish at least a portion of the DREAM Act’s goals.
The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the GOP candidate’s remarks.
The Pinocchio Test
Obama expressed clear support for the DREAM Act when Democrats controlled the House and Senate, and the bill came within five votes of reaching his desk. Still, he failed to garner enough bipartisan support -- including from his own party -- to enact the measure.
The president continuously pushed for comprehensive immigration reform at that point, but supporting reform and brokering a deal are very different things. In fairness, Republicans made it pretty clear at that point that they had a limited tolerance for compromise.
Obama may well have issued his executive order to generate support from the Latino community less than five months before voters go to the polls. But Romney oversimplified the situation, implying that Obama didn’t try to enact immigration reform or give the matter any thought until the heat of an election prompted him into action. Romney also does not acknowledge that his own party played a key role in Obama’s failure to enact a long-term solution.
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