Obama Punts on Immigration

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2014.

It is easy to overstate the importance of the State of the Union address in defining Obama’s legacy—particularly in an election year, when presidential pressure can become a liability for those running in down-ticket races—but there are at least two areas where progressives say the president should have pushed harder last night: immigration and protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the workplace. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would outlaw workplace discrimination against LGBT people, passed the Senate in November but has floundered in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, who has said publicly the legislation is unnecessary, said he will not bring it to a floor vote. Obama made no mention of ENDA last night, and has on a number of occasions downplayed the use of executive action to ensure rights for LGBT workers.

The president did, however, address immigration, weaving the topic into the broader theme of spurring economic growth. "If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement and fix our broken immigration system," Obama said. "Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same." But the issue got less airtime this year than last year, when post-election soul-searching from defeated Republicans made many hopeful the GOP would move forward on immigration as a way to placate Latino voters. 

Some supporters of immigration reform say this was a calculated political move. "In the crazy world of Washington, D.C., the more [the president] says about immigration reform, the more Republicans are likely to resist it," says Frank Sharry, executive director of immigrant-rights group America's Voice. "In fact, you could say that he wants immigration reform legislation so badly, he downplayed it in the speech." 

Republicans are expected to release a list of "principles" on immigration reform after a three-day retreat this week. While the plight of “Dreamers”—children of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children—seemed to elicit more sympathy from legislators in the Republican-controlled House during hearing this past August, some high-ranking members of the party have more recently indicated an openness to granting "legal status"—albeit not a "special path to citizenship"—for a broader number of the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country.

Many political prognosticators have declared immigration dead until after the midterms. Immigration tends to be a national political issue, and it's telling that the last three major overhauls of the immigration system passed in October of a presidential election year. Quite simply, immigration doesn't play well in midterm elections, particularly for Republicans who may fear managing a challenge from the right. "Republicans are worried about managing a challenge from the right," says Marshall Fitz of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "They're not worried about how it plays in the general election because it plays well there."

But pro-immigrant advocacy groups have called on the president to use executive authority to halt deportations until Congress acts. Currently, the administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has allowed 455,000 children of undocumented immigrants—the “Dreamers”—to register for a two year waiver that lets them work and live in the country. Advocates like Sharry believe the administration has the power to extend this relief more broadly until Congress acts. "The president's call for reform would have been even stronger had he said he would use his pen and phone to stop deporting immigrants who are on the cusp of legalizing their status under pending legislation," he said.

Alongside health care and the economy, immigration is one key way President Obama can cement his legacy. While the fate of the Affordable Care Act now rests in the hands of governors across the country, that of the economy and our immigration system are intertwined. "The bottom line is that he definitely made a strong case for Congress to act on immigration—putting country first in economic terms," says Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino-rights group. "As with the minimum wage, immigration has an economic dimension as well as the incredible social dimension of families being disrupted and torn apart by deportations." From a political standpoint, passing immigration reform could cement the Democratic Party's standing with Latino voters, who were instrumental in handing Obama the presidency in 2008 and 2012. It is for this same reason that some are more hopeful Republicans will act—if not before the midterms, then after: The prospect of winning national elections for Republicans depends on peeling away some of Latinos' growing support for Democratic candidates, and no other issue galvanized this constituency like immigration.

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