Do you remember the Schoolhouse Rock clip in which a piece of paper named “Bill” explains how laws are made? To summarize: Congress makes the laws and the President signs them. But with respect to Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”), President Obama is being singularly blamed for the lack of CIR, as if he is the one who is supposed to draft and introduce bills. To be clear, President Obama said that he planned to act on Deportation Relief by the end of the summer and, if Congress would not act, he would do whatever he could via Executive Order. At the beginning of September, President Obama walked those statements back and plans to take up the issue of Immigration again after the November midterm elections. Those who are particularly upset by President Obama’s decision not to act are immigration activists and advocates.
According to those most vocal about the delay, President Obama should tackle the issue of deportation relief via executive order because Congress repeatedly fails to act. Yet every time President Obama signs an executive order, Republicans claim that he is overstepping his authority, despite the fact that the House of Representatives has not passed any legislation on the issue. The Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill in June 2013 that the President indicated he would sign. However, that bill has stalled in the Senate for over a year because Speaker Boehner refuses to bring it to the House floor.
Importantly, executive orders are not always final. Executive orders are indefinite unless they are overturned by court, an act of Congress or a new president who disagrees with the order. Therefore, depending on what happens in the 2016 election, any executive order regarding immigration reform could be overturned by the next president on his or her first day in office. This would send millions of immigrants back to square one and leave them unprotected.
Moreover, even if President Obama signed an executive order regarding deportation relief, it would not protect millions of immigrants who will still need it. President Obama could take executive action now and deportations will not stop because the key words on which advocates and activists for an executive order have focused are “deserving immigrants.” Thus, a policy via executive order is for approximately half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants. Any executive order would not be the same as comprehensive immigration reform. By its very nature, it cannot be. President Obama knows an executive order for immigration reform is only a stopgap measure that can be overturned when he leaves. Therefore, President Obama has stated that he will wait until after the midterm elections. But this specific timeframe seems a bit unusual.
President Obama’s statement that he won’t act on immigration reform until the November 2014 midterms indicates a political move, although perhaps not in the way that immigration activists decry. It is sensible to wait until after midterm elections because if President Obama signed an executive order regarding immigration reform now and Republicans make significant gains in November, the media and Republicans would cite immigration as the key issue, potentially tabling CIR indefinitely. President Obama also knows that if he were to continue to rail on the House of Representatives to do their jobs about CIR, he may not have the votes for a bill to pass, and this defeat would occur right before the midterm elections. Yet President Obama, not Speaker Boehner, is blamed for this inaction. Further, President Obama does not want to give Republicans any fuel for the midterm elections. But the fact that President Obama specifically mentioned that he will take up Immigration Reform after midterm elections seems calculated.
It is not often that President Obama gives a specific timeframe when there is a delay. In fact, he could have been very vague and merely said that the issue needs more time to be studied without referencing a specific time period. Instead, President Obama clearly signaled to voters and CIR advocates and activists that he needs more support in Congress, both from Republicans and Democrats, who can get CIR passed. By signaling midterm elections, President Obama knows that he doesn’t have the correct, or enough, supporters in the House of Representatives now to get CIR passed. However, all 435 seats in the House and a third of the seats in the Senate are up for election in 2014. In other words, if far‑right House Republicans lose their seats, it may pressure Speaker Boehner to bring the already-passed Senate CIR bill to a vote. This is a very clear get out the vote signal by President Obama: if you want change, get me some help by voting in the November midterm elections.
Exacerbating this issue is the growing rift within the Latino community regarding how to respond to President Obama’s delay to act on Immigration Reform. Many DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants and activists who are unable to vote, are still pushing for support of Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections because it is believed that Democrats are, at the very least, the lesser of two evils with respect to CIR. However, there are other groups, dubbed by some as “TeaDREAMers” because of their affiliation with Tea Party Conservatives, who have aligned themselves with Republicans and are calling for either a third political party that is defiantly pro‑Latino, or for Latinos and other immigration activists to sit out the 2014 midterm elections to send a message to President Obama and others. This tactic of those who typically vote for Democrats sitting out went horribly awry in 2010 and, in fact, has made it that much harder for President Obama to sign important legislation because of the losses Democrats suffered. The only point that declining to vote, or voting for those who have not consistently had pro‑immigration interests at heart, will prove is that those most interested in CIR are playing checkers, not the chess game that President Obama has in mind.
Executive orders are quick fixes for issues that can be seen as finite. They should not be used for comprehensive and sweeping changes that will affect millions of people for the rest of their lives. Just like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” or the Affordable Care Act should not have been handled by executive order, immigration reform is important enough that it should not be handled with an executive order by President Obama. While it is disappointing for many that this issue will not be handled as soon as they would like or even when President Obama said it would, it is better for it to be handled correctly than handled quickly. In the meantime, there is nothing stopping Congress from doing their jobs and passing a bill that the President can sign. There is no doubt that it is easier to target an individual rather than a body when applying pressure. However, Congress, the branch of government that actually passes legislation, and specifically the House of Representatives, should be held accountable for its failure to act. The way to do that is to vote in the November 2014 midterm elections.