Obama: The Unbearable Lightness of Being on Immigration


President Obama’s decision to postpone executive action on immigration is probably the nail in the coffin for comprehensive reform under the current government—regardless of whether the president has the constitutional authority to bypass Congress or not, which is not the topic of this post. Whatever reform comes after the midterm elections, if any, will not overhaul a system that places major obstacles on the forces of supply and demand pushing millions into the shadows.

It was almost a miracle that the Senate’s comprehensive bill (which, despite many flaws, constituted progress) was passed on June 27, 2013. Three things have conspired to overturn that partial success: Obama’s style of leadership, the relative strength of the warring ideological camps, and the electoral system. History is not short of examples of presidents who were able to do things in defiance of the existing array of hostile forces at the risk of electoral defeat. But one will be hard-pressed to find many cases of weak leadership overcoming and turning to its advantage a hostile environment.

When the bill passed in the Senate, a majority of Americans supported comprehensive reform. According to Gallup, 83 percent of white conservatives were in favor of “allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens.” At the time, there were several very active Republican members of Congress pushing for change. Other Republicans, including former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, were rooting from the sidelines. A visionary leader willing to take risks could have created an environment in which the House of Representatives found it extremely difficult to avoid real reform. To judge by the way in which he distanced himself from vocal Tea Party critics, even Republican Speaker John Boehner feared this might be the case. House majority leader Eric Cantor later dared make a few pro-immigration statements.

Everything changed in the following months. The failure to build a coalition in favor of reform allowed critics within the Republican Party to bully pro-immigration conservatives. Gradually the perception that a huge majority of the GOP base was against reform silenced the most active conservatives. Soon even Democrats began to feel that the approaching midterm elections made it unwise to persist. Eventually the president made noises about executive action but postponed it.

Then the summer of 2014 happened—i.e., the news that in May and June of this year there had been a surge in the number of unaccompanied Central American children trying to cross illegally into the United States. The predictable brouhaha triggered by this temporary humanitarian crisis, which had little connection with the issues at the heart of immigration reform, paralyzed the Obama administration. The president dithered—a perfect scenario for scared Democrats to begin to voice concerns about executive action prior to the midterm elections. As races tightened in Arkansas, North Carolina, Alaska, New Hampshire, and other places, the relative strength of the warring ideological camps on immigration increasingly favored the path of no reform despite evidence that a majority of Americans continued to support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (they outnumber those who are opposed by 27 percentage points).

Ironically, confirmation soon came that the number of children trying to cross the border was dropping dramatically. By August, the number of kids trying to sneak in was down to one-third the level of May and June.

It was too late. Fearing the loss of the Senate in November, the president had decided he would not act. Regardless of the delicate constitutional aspects involved, the decision was the end of any possible substantive reform.

It has often been said that Obama’s tortuous decision-making process is due to a conscience in constant debate with itself and a legal formation that pushes him to scrutinize every argument and counterargument. As far as immigration reform goes, it really hasn’t looked that way. It has simply come down to a failure of leadership or, in Milan Kundera’s eternal words, an unbearable lightness of being.

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For more on immigration policy, see Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s award-winning book, Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America (The Independent Institute, 2013).

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