Analysis: Why Immigration Reform Isn't a Guarantee

Replaying Obama's first-term track record on immigration.

November 08, 2012, 10:58 AM

Nov. 8, 2012— -- After billions of dollars and more than a year on the campaign trail, Barack Obama has won four more years in the Oval Office.

A big part of why he won? Latino voters.

Even before the Obama victory, some analysts, like CNN's David Gergen, speculated that Latino voting power would translate into immigration policy change: "In the next term, whoever is elected, we will get immigration reform. Democrats want it and Republicans now need it."

Immigration reform is possible in the next four years but by no means a guarantee.

Yes, Obama said he is confident Congress will pass an immigration reform bill in his first year. Yes, his vice president, Joe Biden, said the president and fellow Democrats are "breaking our neck" to get immigration reform done.

But this all sounds familiar. During his 2008 campaign, Obama vowed to pass immigration reform in his first year.

He even inherited a supportive Congress, a hopeful electorate and diminishing illegal immigration from Mexico, yet that never translated into legislative change. Congress did not pass an immigration reform bill.

Political news has a short shelf life, and never more than during campaign season, when the media jumps from soundbite to soundbite, and when politicians contort and contradict themselves in an effort to appease disparate voting blocs. But to understand why immigration reform not might happen -- regardless of what the president says -- we need to look back to how reform fell flat the first time around.

What did happen during Obama's first two years in office? Deportations increased to record levels. The government continued to outsource immigration detention to for-profit companies. A new federal immigration enforcement program called Secure Communities forced local police across the country to share inmate fingerprints with Homeland Security.

In the early days of the presidency, reform seemed like a real possibility. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., put together a framework for immigration reform legislation, and he rolled out his seven core policy principles at a Georgetown law conference in June 2009.

Those principles included an important but contentious ask -- a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented people in this country. The broader set of principles, however, leaned heavily on border security and employment fraud detection programs, including the requirement that all U.S. employees verify their identity through a fingerprint or an eye scan.

At the Georgetown conference, Schumer struck a conservative tone on the issue:

"Illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple," he said. "People who enter the United States without our permission are illegal aliens. When we use phrases like 'undocumented workers,' we convey a message to the American people that their government is not serious about combating illegal immigration."

The senator used the term "illegal" 30 times and "alien" 9 times during his speech, Colorlines later reported.

Schumer spoke as if immigration reform could happen in 2009, and pledged his party's support. At the time, both the Senate and the House were controlled by Democrats -- a moment of legislative power for the party.

"When the president asks me whether Congress can pass comprehensive immigration reform this Congress, I will smile and say, 'Mr. President, yes we can,' " Schumer said at the conference. "All of the fundamental building blocks are in place to pass comprehensive immigration reform this session and, even possibly, later this year."

Yet two months later, immigration reform was dead. Speaking at a North American leaders' summit in Mexico, Obama said the administration couldn't tackle immigration because it was deep in battles over healthcare and climate change laws.

"It's important for us to sequence these big initiatives," the president told reporters, "so they don't all crash at the same time."

When the State of the Union came around, one year into the presidency, immigration was practically a footnote:

"We should continue the work of fixing our immigration system," Obama said. "To secure our borders and enforce our laws and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation."

That's all he said.

The first-year promise was broken, so attention turned to 2010. With Tea Party fervor on the rise, midterm elections threatened to end the Democrat's narrow control of the House (Spoiler alert: that November, the House would go commandingly red).

Immigration barely surfaced on the president's agenda. Schumer's immigration reform bill -- even with its enforcement-centered priorities -- didn't materialize.

By summer 2010, young undocumented activists had lost patience and decided to redirect the conversation. Dreamers set up camp outside Schumer's Midtown Manhattan office and launched a hunger strike. The goal: to force the senator to endorse the DREAM Act, a bill that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented young people who serve in the military or attend college.

As it stood, Schumer supported the legislation, but as part of a greater immigration reform package. Yet he hadn't released a reform bill up to this point, and November elections were only five months away.

On the tenth and final day of the action, Schumer met with the protestors.

"He did find ten minutes of his time to come tell us that what we're doing is frustrating for him," said Yadira Alvarez, a hunger striker who spoke to ABC News. According to the group, Schumer said he needed more co-sponsors to introduce a comprehensive bill in the Senate, a position he had also stated publicly at that time. Alvarez wanted more: "We're tired of promises and we're tired of waiting."

Immigrant rights groups mobilized behind the DREAM Act, which would have put hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship. If comprehensive immigration reform couldn't get off the ground, maybe a piece of it could.

The DREAM Act didn't inspire the sort of dogfight that defined the battle over Obamacare, not because Republicans supported it (they didn't) but because Democrats -- many facing tough re-election bids -- weren't willing to risk political capital for it. To wit: the bill wasn't introduced until the lame duck session of Congress, and it was tacked on to a military spending bill, along with a hopeful but unlikely repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Observers gave it slim odds of passage.

As the DREAM Act vote approached, the president spoke in favor of the bill, calling it a "down payment" on immigration reform. But unlike the healthcare battle, Obama wasn't able, or willing, to marshal the troops. When Republicans used a technique known as a filibuster to block the DREAM Act in the Senate, the Democrats fell short of advancing the bill by four votes.

Two Democrats voted against it, as did Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who did so for technical reasons once he realized it wouldn't pass. One Republican vote may have shifted the tide, but the president wasn't able to get it.

The DREAM Act defeat marked the end of any serious talk about immigration reform. With Republicans retaking the House in 2011, and eyeing the White House two years down the road, major bipartisan legislation was effectively off the table. The next opportunity for a reform bill wouldn't be until 2013, at the earliest.

The 2012 election season put immigration back in the spotlight. Romney struggled to combat abysmal support among Latino voters, but when asked about 12 million people living in the shadows, he only went as far as saying, "I am not going to be going around the country and rounding them up." A path to citizenship was not offered as part of his platform.

Obama struck a different tone, reiterating his support for immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, but also admitted that immigration reform was his "biggest failure."

In the past year, he enacted a major administrative change, using his executive power to allow certain Dreamers to live and work in the U.S. legally, but on a temporary basis, without a pathway to citizenship. A legislative victory has remained elusive.

As far back as April, Obama pledged that he would attempt to pass an immigration reform bill in 2013. "I can promise that I will try to do it in the first year of my second term," he told Univision anchor Enrique Acevedo. "I want to try this year."

The outcome of the president's first immigration promise is clear: he backseated the issue early in his presidency, and never picked it up with the seriousness of purpose needed to craft and pass a reform bill.

Experts have tied Obama's presidential win -- and Romney's loss -- to the Latino vote, and with that, the political calls for reform are starting again. But the composition of Congress, with the House solidly Republican, is less favorable than 2009-2010, when broad legislative change was last considered viable.

Whether reform is possible depends in part on the House. Will Republicans, smarting from the presidential loss, be willing to address what many Latinos consider a core issue? Or will it be an encore presentation of the so-called "do-nothing" Congress from the past two years?

The president's political appetite for reform is also crucial. He could attack immigration reform as he did with healthcare. Or he could ignore it and hope it goes away.

In any case, the calls for reform are already growing. "This is the time to do it," said Ben Monterroso, the national executive director of Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, during a webinar hosted by the political opinion research firm Latino Decisions. "The community and the voters are expecting not a piecemeal approach to an issue that has been at the center of the debate for years."

Over in the Senate, where the DREAM Act was defeated two years ago, Majority Leader Harry Reid says reform is a "high priority" and is hopeful that Republicans will agree.

"Not for political reasons; because it's the wrong thing to do to not have comprehensive immigration reform," Reid said. "The system's broken and needs to be fixed."

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