The Toxic Politics of Immigration

Election fears lead Obama to cast aside reform for now
Illustration by Bloomberg View

President Barack Obama has heaped another indignity atop the nation’s sorry failure to reckon with immigration realities. There will be no executive action to ease the plight of undocumented immigrants, Obama said, before the midterm elections.

With that announcement, which broke his earlier promise, Obama made it all but official: Everyone in Washington is scared of immigration reform.

In June 2013 more than two-thirds of the Senate voted to pass a bill that balanced the conservative goal of more spending on border security with the liberal desire for an achievable, though lengthy, path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. A handful of Republican senators supported the legislation, including Marco Rubio of Florida, who showed leadership in trying to solve a problem that others were eager to exploit.

Then the legislation moved to the House of Representatives, where a majority of the Democrats and a minority of the Republicans were poised to pass the bill. Unfortunately, Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to a vote or to produce a viable replacement. Instead, House Republicans voted to rescind Obama’s executive action deferring deportations for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. This caused the president to make his now abandoned vow to step in.

But last spring’s influx of Central American children crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley caused what Obama called a “shift” in the politics. Immigrants and the border were once again causes of public anxiety. Democrats, fearful of losing control of the Senate, asked him to hold off on executive action.

And so the toxic politics of Washington prevailed, a cycle in which fear reproduces itself, spreading from its hosts like an aggressive virus. Obama is but the latest victim.

The president says he will wait until after the election to act. He has a plausible case for his fear: Had he acted and Democrats subsequently lost the Senate, both the president and the issue of immigration surely would have been blamed, and any action in future Congresses might be more difficult.

But the delay is unlikely to give Obama much respite. Republicans are still well-positioned to take control of the Senate, and it’s entirely possible that a Republican Senate would emulate the destructive impulses of the House.

All of this leaves the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in limbo. Those opposed to making them legal citizens continue to block proposed solutions without offering alternatives. But long-settled undocumented immigrants working and raising families in the U.S. will eventually obtain legal status—with all the caveats and penalties—because it’s the only realistic and humane course. There will be no mass deportations.


    To read Edward O. Wilson on the instability of humanity and Pankaj Mishra on Scotland, go to:

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.