The immigration reform battlefield

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 19, 2013


President Obama’s decision to push forward with an immigration reform will have as much success in preventing Republicans from making electoral gains among Latinos as in fixing America’s broken immigration system.  Though some Republicans are amenable to a reform, a majority of likely Republican voters are more interested in protecting the border than in finding a pathway to legalization to the 11 million undocumented immigrants that currently live in the United States.


The Obama plan would establish an 8-year wait period for undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. and would speed up the process for those who are already on the waitlist for their visas. The plan would also include a special provision for those who were brought to the U.S. as children and grew up in the U.S, provided that they are otherwise lawful undocumented residents.  The popularity among Latinos of the DREAM Act—the failed legislative initiative that sought to legalize college students who were brought as children to the U.S. by their relatives—has led the administration to use the case of undocumented college students as the symbol of the need for a sensible immigration reform.


Republicans have strongly criticized Obama’s initiative. The Republican Senator from Florida Marco Rubio declared it DOA (dead on arrival). Other moderate Republicans cried foul, accusing the President of playing politics by adopting a radical position rather than showing his willingness to compromise behind a bill that could pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  Democrats followed the official government position that the White House was willing to give Congress more time to produce a bipartisan plan before President Obama pushes for his own plan.


That strategy is convenient for the Obama administration. It puts pressure on Congress to compromise behind a proposal that will offer a way to legal residency to more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. It also forces Republicans to take positions. Whereas some Republicans are willing to make concessions on immigration to attract Latino voters, others fear that conservative voters will be alienated if the Republican Party abandons its tough anti-illegal immigration views. Thus, while there is room for a reform that grants non-resident status to millions of illegal immigrants, Republicans are unlikely to favor a reform that offers them a pathway to citizenship.  Since there is a big difference in granting undocumented workers a legal status and offering them a pathway to citizenship, President Obama wants to force Republicans to make their position clear. The White House hopes that an immigration reform will be passed—one which does not offer a pathway to citizenship—but Republicans will fail to make gains among Latino voters.


The White House document also underlines the new strategy favored by Obama for his second term. Though the President will continue to insist in that bipartisan support is needed for all important legislation, Obama will be more likely to engage in partisan fights.  Though the midterm election will only take place in November of 2014, President Obama believes that he does best against Republicans when his public approval is highest. Obama’s job approval has stayed above 50% since the last presidential campaign started in full in September of 2012.  The President’s team believes that the confrontational strategy has paid off.  He won re-election using it. When Obama favored a more compromising approach—especially after the 2010 midterm elections Democratic defeat—his approval slip to the lows 40s.  Since compromising did not produce results in negotiations with Republicans nor did it help his public image, Obama seems now committed to a more combative strategy.


Prospects for a limited immigration reform are good. The Republican Party feels pressure from Latinos, but also from the business sector, a traditional Republican ally. The incipient economic recovery is putting pressure on labor costs.  Labor supply of low skill immigrants has experienced a decline since the 2008 crisis. In fact, the number of undocumented workers is stagnant—and by some accounts it has even fallen—since 2008. Agreeing on a reform that establishes a pathway to legalization—but not citizenship—for undocumented workers will also make it more difficult for a new reform that provides citizenship rights in the future. Some moderate Republicans fear that if they don’t agree to a limited reform now, they will be forced to accept a more comprehensive reform later.


For sure, immigration activists would much rather have a more comprehensive reform, but the urgent needs of undocumented immigrants now will make the pro-immigration advocates accept any reform they can get. Past efforts at passing a limited reform—most notably during the Bush administration—failed.  Immigration advocates know that a limited reform is far better than no reform.


President Obama is likely to make immigration reform one of the big legislative agenda items of 2013. By threatening Republicans with a more wide-ranging reform, Obama wants to force Republicans to acquiesce to a limited immigration reform and, at the same time, retain the pro-immigration position—and the Latino votes that come with it—safely in the hands of the Democratic Party.