Republicans say President Barack Obama should have waited for Congress to overhaul immigration laws instead of bypassing lawmakers with a directive to halt the deportations of some young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
History suggests he would have had to wait a long time. For a decade, since then-President George W. Bush failed to win support for what he called a balanced approach, lawmakers have been unable to advance immigration legislation. Republicans in particular have been divided between those who emphasize border security and the deportation of illegal immigrants and those who favor a path to citizenship for some.
Congress also hasn’t been able to peel off smaller pieces of the debate, such as skilled-worker visas sought by the U.S. technology industry.
“There is a significant gridlock, and I tell you some of the sincerest members of Congress truly do not know what would be the best approach,” Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, said in an interview. “We truly can’t. The absolute polarization on the issue makes it almost impossible for even the sincerest ones to even reconcile all of it.”
Obama’s June 15 directive affects about 800,000 undocumented immigrants 30 and younger who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country for at least five years, have no criminal record and are in school or have a high-school diploma or the equivalent. That’s a slice of the 11.5 million people that the U.S. government estimates are in the country illegally.
As with other policy issues, including health care and climate change, the Republican Party has moved far to the right since Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah in 2001 proposed the Dream Act. That measure would provide a path to legal status for younger illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Eleven years later, Obama’s directive seeks to create that path without a vote by Congress.
Lawmakers “can’t get together to solve simpler issues,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a Washington-based nonprofit group that backs an overhaul of immigration laws. “They’ve totally forgotten how to make deals. The wings of both parties are very strong right now. That makes it harder for both of them to come to the center.”
The Dream Act fell out of favor in the past two years with Republican conservatives, many backed by the Tea Party. Hatch, who faces a tough re-election contest this year, avoided voting on the legislation in late 2010, when Republicans and a few Democrats killed the measure in the Senate. The House, then controlled by Democrats, had passed the bill earlier with eight Republican votes.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who voted against the Dream Act in 2010, told reporters on June 19 that Obama’s decision is “going to make it much more difficult for us to work in a bipartisan way to get a permanent solution.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told Latino public officials today that Obama has failed to show leadership on immigration issues, while offering few details on his plan other than pledging “my own long-term solution that will replace” the temporary measure issued by Obama.
“Last week, the president finally offered a temporary measure -- he called it a stopgap measure -- that he seems to think will be just enough to get him through the election,” Romney said today to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Romney said today, as he has before, that he favored giving permanent residency to foreign students who obtain advanced degrees in math, science or engineering at U.S. universities, saying they should have green cards stapled to their diplomas. Romney also repeated some previous statements of support for providing a path to legal status for illegal immigrants who serve in the military.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Romney should work to cast immigration as an economic issue and pledge to “deal with it in a complete way.”
“We’re the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t have a rational immigration policy,” said Graham, who worked on the unsuccessful 2006-2007 overhaul effort, “President Obama has really shown an appalling lack of leadership. So there’s an opportunity here.”
Obama’s directive has focused attention on the immigration issue in the presidential campaign. A Bloomberg News poll released June 19 showed that 64 percent of likely voters surveyed after Obama’s announcement said they agreed with the policy, while 30 percent disagreed. Independent voters backed the decision by a better than a 2-to-1 ratio.
The last “good year” an overhaul could have happened was 2007, said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law. In June of that year, a bipartisan immigration effort led by Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, collapsed, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the measure from the floor.
This work ended up complicating McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 because of opposition from conservatives, such as Representative Steve King of Iowa, who were concerned about border security and illegal immigrants.
Now, King said he may sue over Obama’s immigration directive. “One side wants amnesty and the other side wants the rule of law,” he said in an interview. “I am for the rule of law. If you grant amnesty, it undermines the rule of law and then who would respect it again.”
Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, called Obama’s decision “a terrible mistake” that further polarizes lawmakers.
“It just poisons the well for immigration,” Cornyn told reporters. “It makes fixing our broken immigration system, which I think should be a national priority, that much harder to do.”
After Obama’s announcement, Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said he is dropping plans to introduce legislation that could grant work visas to some young people brought to the U.S. illegally. Rubio, who has been mentioned as a possible Romney running mate, was working behind the scenes in the Senate to gain support for his provision and hadn’t introduced legislation.
The Senate’s only Hispanic Republican, Rubio today criticized Obama’s administration for not reaching out to him before announcing the directive, saying that not consulting Republicans showed Obama had no interest in a bipartisan plan.
“If you’re really interested in a bipartisan solution and you read in the newspaper that there’s a Republican senator working on an idea, don’t you reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, how does your idea work? I’m just curious.’ That never happened,” Rubio told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
As technology companies have lobbied to increase the number of skilled-worker visas, lawmakers have fended off efforts to separate visa expansion efforts from a broader immigration overhaul. Disparate efforts, such as the visas and the Dream Act, have been delayed as lawmakers seek a bargain on immigration that has eluded Bush, Obama and the Congress when it was controlled by Republicans and then by Democrats.
“That was the wisdom that prevailed from 2005 until today,” Jacoby said. “Even pro-business Republicans held tough to that line to not break it up and get a big deal.” The prevailing philosophy, she said, is “We can’t fix the roof until we buy a whole new house.”
Among the groups advocating for expanding skilled-worker visas, known as H-1B visas, is the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, whose members include Microsoft Corp., Google Inc., Intel Corp. and Adobe Systems Inc.
Emily Lam, the group’s federal issues director, said persuading Congress to increase the number of such visas has been difficult because a faction of lawmakers hasn’t wanted to address the issue without finding a way to assist low-skilled workers.
Obama’s announcement prompted an outburst of “animosity” among people who wrongly think that expanding visas for highly skilled workers will increase competition for jobs, Lam said. Even so, she said that by raising the issue, Obama may have created some “windows of opportunity” for advocates of expanding H-1B visas.
“As an advocate, I’d still think it’s better to have people angry and talking about it than not talking about it at all,” she said in an interview.