Fear Immigrates to the White House

No help is coming until after the election, maybe.

President Barack Obama last weekend heaped another indignity atop the nation's sorry failure to reckon with immigration realities. There would be no executive action to ease the plight of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., 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. It's worth reviewing how the issue became so terribly haunted.

QuickTake Swerving Path to Citizenship

In June 2013, more than two thirds of the Senate voted to pass a comprehensive 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 in the U.S. 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 the Senate bill to the floor for 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 is what caused the president to make his now-abandoned promise and vow to step in. But last spring's influx of children from Central America crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley caused a "shift" in the politics, Obama told NBC's Chuck Todd. Immigrants and the border were once again causes of public anxiety. Democrats, fearful of losing control of the Senate in November, 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 had 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 new delay is unlikely to give Obama much respite. Republicans are still well positioned to take control of the Senate after November. Despite the party's need to diversify its ranks, and the damage to its long-term prospects that the fight against immigration is inflicting, it's entirely possible that a Republican Senate would emulate the destructive impulses of the House. (Rubio and his colleagues have been chased off the field.)

All of this leaves the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in limbo. Those opposed to making undocumented immigrants legal citizens continue to block proposed solutions without offering alternatives. They have none. 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 is the only realistic as well as humane course. There will be no mass deportations.

Meanwhile, the American economy, as well as American society, awaits another "shift" in the country's politics, to a place less fearful and mean than the present.

--Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Katy Roberts.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net