What next for immigration reform? Some suggestions

This weekend we learned that President Obama has decided to postpone announcing executive actions on immigration reform until after the November midterm elections. This announcement was met with howls of indignation and feelings of betrayal from most, but not all, immigration activists. In the process of addressing the issue in social media, I lost some follows, and chose to unfollow others, whom I felt were making strategic errors in their public pronouncements. I'm not known for being shy about what I think, but I do feel obliged to lay out my perspective in a longer form; and more importantly, offer those advocates the benefit of some lessons learned - and suggestions for next steps - that may help us get more of the changes we all seek in US immigration policy.

What happened, and why

President Obama set out on a Year of Action in 2014. It was meant to accomplish two goals: 

  1. Get some needed improvements accomplished in the US via executive action; and
  2. Call out the Republican Party for obstructing those needed improvements, in order to help the Democratic Party in the 2014 elections.

Throughout the year, the president has issued a variety of executive orders. In each case, he traveled to symbolically relevant locations in the districts of leading incumbent Republican obstructionists to speak about goals that aren't being accomplished due to Congressional inaction, and taking action to address them. It's been a highly effective strategy to date.

When the president takes these actions, he heightens the contradictions between Republican elected officials and the actual preferences of their constituents. It provokes the very obstructionists against whom the president is campaigning into denouncing him for taking any action. The president then folds those criticisms into his next stump speech and gets the crowd laughing at the absurdity of those who would impeach him for doing his job because they aren't doing theirs. It's a canny way to get your opponents to act on their bad ideas so that they confirm what you're saying about them; and remind voters why that Republican legislator should be removed from office, and replaced with one who will take common-sense action on pressing issues facing our nation. The fundamental contradiction that's being highlighted is this: 

If you expect government to do its job, you can't vote for today's Republicans.

Executive action to ameliorate conditions for America's undocumented immigrants was selected as a goal, and the president began speaking of how he would tackle the issue this year. In the process, he laid out a timetable for internal work to assess the situation and identify changes he could make to immigration policy without Congressional action, and set the end of summer as the target date to complete that work.

Remember that President Obama has already taken one of the most significant executive actions in history with the 2012 creation of DACA - Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It's a program modeled after the DREAM Act, and establishes criteria by which certain undocumented residents brought here as children can remain for two more years, pursue educational opportunities, gain eligibility to work in the meantime, and who are generally referred to as DREAMers. It's a step; but it's temporary, only applies to some people, and does not confer citizenship.

But as the executive branch was reviewing its policies and practices regarding undocumented immigrants, a surge of people, many unaccompanied children, from strife-ridden countries in Central America began to dominate the news. The special circumstances of these new arrivals put an overwhelming strain on resources dedicated to dealing with them, and large numbers of children and young people are being warehoused in questionable conditions. An outcry rose from both sides of the issue; and public opinion about immigration shifted, and hardened, as a result.

The administration had to pivot to addressing this issue, and diverted resources and personnel to both stem the tide in arrivals and deal with those already here. And of course, the right wing latched on to this humanitarian crisis to fear-monger and demagogue, in order to whip up more anger in their voting base.

Within a few weeks of the crisis coming to the public's attention, most people settled down, and opinion polling showed that the majority had come to understand that these kids needed compassion and individual consideration for their circumstances, not immediate mass deportation. But the momentum was growing in the right wing base, and the GOP-led House took the incredibly offensive action of voting to deport the DREAMers before heading home for their extended recess.

Meanwhile, another affected constituency began to express their concerns about executive action on immigration policy. The incumbent Senate Democrats who faced re-election this November groused, privately to the White House and publicly, that executive action before the election would energize the conservative base against them, even as most of the specific Senators up for re-election represented states that are low in the minority populations who would be most motivated by these actions.

As the unaccompanied minors crisis heated up, these Senators became more vocal in their concerns, and their polling showed them that they faced far more downside than upside in the wake of presidential action on immigration. 

I do not need to explain to readers of this website how precarious the balance is in the Senate, or what a disaster it would be for the nation if the entire Congress were controlled by the Republican Party. The unfortunate reality is that several Senate Democrats who took office after the 2008 election, buoyed in their red-leaning states by Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, now face re-election in a mid-term election, in which the composition of the voting pool tends to skew older, whiter, and more conservative.

When even Al Franken asks the White House to delay action, it's a sign that there's a real concern among the Senate.

The announcement sucked

Those of us who have gone back and read President Obama's actual words about his plans for immigration action, rather than relying on news reports about them, note the typical lawyerly precision of his remarks; and the main time-based element of his comments related to White House completing review of its options by the end of summer (which has taken place), and not the exact timing of the actions themselves. Still, his repeated invocation of "the end of summer" to describe that review became cemented in the public's consciousness as the action point. Additionally, the president has spoken of implementing these recommendations "without further delay," which certainly sounds like now, not later. Further, there's been no specificity on what those recommendations are, leaving media to speculate and rely on "sources familiar with the White House's thinking" about what these actions will be.

Just last Friday at a press conference, the President used substantially the same language to answer a question about the status of immigration reform action, further reinforcing an expectation in the media and among immigration activists that direct action was just around the corner.

So when on Saturday, White House personnel let it be leaked that the president would wait until after the election to announce his actions, followed by President Obama's confirmation in his Sunday interview with Chuck Todd, it felt like a punch in the gut to the people who are most directly affected. While I scrambled to make sense of it, one major concern was how blindsided immigration activists were by it. It's "only" two months, but that's too long to too many people currently in limbo.

Background reporting has since confirmed that the White House conferred with leading immigration activists in advance of this announcement, but those folks may have lacked time or permission to prepare their front lines and grassroots for the news, making people even angrier.

The announcement sucked. I get it. People are mad. I get it. You need to vent. I understand. You hate some of the feedback and advice you're getting right now. I know how that feels. I'll address that in more detail in a moment.

But first, we need to talk about a simple truth: 

If you're angry about the 2 month delay in executive action, you probably aren't going to be satisfied with the content of those executive actions when they're actually revealed.

Executive action is not enough

Even though President Obama has taken fewer executive actions to date than any modern president, his fierce opponents have proclaimed him a tyrant - and threatened to impeach him - for those he has taken. As noted above, the parting shot of the House GOP was to vote to undo Obama's most significant immigration executive action, which created a quasi-legal status for the DREAMers.

A president is impeached in the House, then tried in the Senate. That should help everyone put the consequences of the November elections into the proper context.

And executive action, no matter how large or small its scope, is limited. Congress legislates, presidents execute. Most of the presidency's power resides in the details of how it interprets that legislation, and in the working rules it promulgates to the departments responsible for implementing and enforcing it.

Executive orders are specific to the administration issuing them. Once a new president is elected, s/he has power to undo or modify them, and redirect resources of the executive branch to change priorities.

Executive action on a topic as fraught as the legal status of immigrants is a double-edged sword. You may recall that some eligible youth were hesitant to enroll in DACA, precisely because by coming out of the shadows to avail themselves of the benefit, they were formally announcing their status to a government agency, and being added to lists that could be used by a future administration to facilitate their deportation. The House GOP's recent action served to confirm those concerns.

Whatever executive action President Obama takes will be constrained by the limits of executive authority, and can be undone by a change in administration, or the passage by Congress of legislation that specifically ties the executive branch's hands in that area.

The bill the House passed this summer undoing DACA will never pass the current Senate. Will it pass the next Senate? Perhaps. Would President Obama veto such a bill? Yes. Would Congress override his veto? Probably not. But would you like to be one of the people whose residency in the US hangs in that balance?

Therefore, the president's executive actions on immigration will be limited in scope by President Obama's unwillingness to give Congress more grievances for impeachment, and by his valid concern that overreach could lead to a backlash, making conditions worse for the very people he's trying to help.

It won't be enough. It may staunch the bleeding, but it won't cure the patient.

One final unintended consequence of executive action remains. Once it's implemented, public attention and media focus drifts away from the issue, as it becomes just another checkmark on a to-do list. Taking executive action tends to reduce pressure on Congress to act, and reduces the consequences for their failure to take permanent action.

Only comprehensive immigration reform legislation, passed by Congress and signed by the president, will get the US on a pathway toward greater justice for those coming to America seeking haven and opportunity.

What hasn't worked

Many of the immigration activists venting on social media last weekend were doing two things that didn't move things forward: blaming Obama; and complaining about the feedback they were getting from Democrats for complaining. The White House is still not the source of the problem, and it's central to the solution, no matter how badly the announcement was bungled. And when well-meaning progressive people weighed in with, "You guys should do X" and "Why haven't you tried Y" it only served to further piss off activists. They retorted with some variation of, "We have done X and we have tried Y and it didn't work, and if you really cared you'd know we've already tried them." Unsurprisingly, those who thought they were being helpful didn't much appreciate that response, no matter how much truth it contained.

So for the record, let me stipulate that immigration activists have been working for decades on this problem, and have experienced advances and retrenchment along the way. Every movement for social justice has traced a similar arc. Along the way, a variety of strategies have been employed, and there has often been tension in those communities about the best way to accomplish the goal.

Jonathan Capehart at the Washington Post wrote a good post about the parallels between anger at President Obama from immigration activists and LGBT activists, and in the case of LGBT activists, what anger did and didn't accomplish for the gay community, and how time and actions have validated this administration's commitment to LGBT equality, even as goals remain incomplete. In a similar vein during President Obama's first term, I wrote a longer essay at Angry Black Lady about the LGBT rights movement - from my perspective as a crusader since the 1970s -  that urged my LGBT family to be patient and focus on the long-term arc of history.

Demands for executive action, as in the movement against Don't Ask, Don't Tell, are always predicated on the fierce urgency of now. Real military members and those they loved were at risk every day that the country failed to address this injustice. Administratively, the military was already soft-pedaling and delaying action against outed soldiers at the White House's direction, but yes, proceedings were still underway against gay and lesbian service members, and the failure of government to act was directly impacting their lives.

In the same way, people are still being deported at a fast clip by the US as we speak. Again, under the president's direction, the focus has already been shifted toward those recently arrived rather than those who are longtime residents, toward those who have been convicted of crimes rather than those who have been otherwise law-abiding, and those without connections to their community rather than those who have familial and social ties with US citizens. Again, I stipulate that people are still affected by immigration policy every day that the government doesn't act. But in reality, many of those against whom action is currently being pursued will still be deported, even under a presidential executive order or any comprehensive immigration reform that can pass Congress.

One subset of the immigrant community that is still being targeted, however, is people who are presently in a fugitive status because of their prior run-ins with INS. Some of these people otherwise meet the criteria listed above, have ties and US citizen family members, yet are at heightened risk of deportation. This is an issue that should be addressed in the regulations and practices that result from executive action. 

Immigration reform advocates are entitled to their anger and frustration. And that anger and frustration can be directed wherever the person feeling it chooses. But when all is said and done, all the actions and tactics employed by immigration advocates to date have still not moved the needle far enough or quickly enough. The anger is about goals unmet and the continuation of injustice in spite of those efforts.

Focusing on congress hasn't worked

  • Activists have lobbied Congress for years, yet lawmakers still fall into three camps: those who actively work to improve the system; those who actively work to make it worse; and those who just hide under their desks and hope the whole issue goes away by someone else's action. Where members of Congress stand is best predicted by party, then by the ethnic diversity of their constituency. Those Republicans whose districts contain the most Latinos are the ones most likely to publicly buck their party's trend. And while there may actually be a majority in the House who support immigration reform, their leadership won't allow it to come to a vote because of the benefits they derive from keeping their base hopped up about the issue.

Pursuing voters hasn't worked

  • Try as activists might to make immigration reform an election issue when challenging an incumbent or selecting a challenger, most electoral districts are sufficiently polarized by party as to make it a non-issue in campaigns. Republican legislators there can oppose immigration reform and still get elected. They'll send form letters to constituents who lobby them on immigration reform, but they won't budge, don't think they need to, and fear a primary challenger from the right should they change teams. Seeking out and registering more voters who support immigration reform has also been underway for some time. However, these voters tend not to turn out as reliably in mid-term elections like the ones we face in November. And the percentage of eligible Latinos who are actually registered and vote continues to lag behind other ethnic and racial groups.

Working with faith groups hasn't worked

  • Most mainline religious communities and many faith-based organizations support immigration reform, but their lobbying hasn't changed votes either. Republican elected officials have as many or more self-proclaimed Christian constituents who oppose immigration reform, no matter how un-Christlike that stance may be. And members of mainline churches are less influenced by pastoral guidance on social issues than they once were.

Partnering with the business community hasn't worked

  • Most large corporations and business organizations see the value in creating a larger pool of people legally permitted to work in the US. The best companies work diligently to ensure all employees have the right to work, while the worst look for ways to skirt this requirement without getting caught. In any case, they know they will benefit from comprehensive immigration reform, even if they only support work eligibility and not a path to citizenship. But so far, that corporate support for immigration reform hasn't affected the flow of campaign contributions. Republicans can oppose immigration reform and still get corporate money to fund their campaigns.

Gaining labor support hasn't worked

  • The labor movement has been divided on immigration reform for the same reasons that corporations favor it: increased competition for entry-level jobs can depress wages. But labor leaders have adopted comprehensive immigration reform as a component of their progressive agenda. Once again, however, support from labor leadership doesn't necessarily affect the voting habits of members or retirees. The mere presence of working-class voters doesn't predict the voting habits of a district.

What to try now

So, Allan, what exactly should immigration activists do now? I hear you asking.

My answer: Even though everything you're doing hasn't worked yet, keep doing everything.

All of these efforts are worth pursuing, even if they haven't produced much in the way of results yet. Each draws some visibility to the issue, and forces people to think about where they stand on immigration. They can change minds, and eventually votes. For years, the LGBT community fought among itself over the best way to achieve its goals, but ultimately a general truce prevailed where each constituency did what they were best at, and all roads were pursued at once. Even as voters finally began to favor equality over discrimination, and elected officials found it harder to run for office without supporting LGBT equality, long-pursued legal strategies started paying off in a growing series of court decisions. 

My suggestion, then, is more tactical than strategic. I'm sure my suggestions are not new ideas, or unique to me. Rather than attempting to tell other people how they should pursue justice, my recommendations are about how best to focus and prioritize those efforts, and where it may be most effective to act.

Think back to what I said about Obama heightening the contradictions and look again at the current targets of immigration reform strategy - elected officials, voters, churches, business and labor. Which one of them does the most to support the Republican Party and its anti-immigrant platform, while also offering public support for immigration reform?

That's right, the business community.

They give to both parties, but individually and collectively, they give far more to Republicans than to Democrats, and represent a higher percentage of Republican candidates' overall political contributions.

The only constituency that says it supports comprehensive immigration reform - while demonstrably strengthening the party which opposes it - is the business community. There's your contradiction. Heighten that.

Immigration rights organizations should, to the maximum extent possible, establish stronger lines of communication with corporations - and trade groups like the Chamber of Commerce - who say they support immigration reform, but substantially fund its opponents. Corporate sponsors of immigration reform have far more influence on Republican elected officials than most of these constituencies, and control funds that are an irresistible resource to them.

How much can you get a corporate partner to commit? Can you get them to make public support for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, a mandatory precondition for campaign contributions? Will they withhold support for selected Republican leaders until they pledge to allow votes in Congress, no matter which party controls the chamber after November?

Corporations, and their political action committees and trade associations, are looking the other way as the candidates they finance pledge to block one of their stated objectives from coming to pass. Up until now, those interests have conceded to elected officials' use of anti-immigration pledges and advertisements, because they work with the voting base that keeps them in office. They've let the politicians decide how to approach the issue for too long. It's time for them to step up and tell elected officials that immigration reform is an issue on which their support depends.

Readers of this website want corporate money to have less influence, not more, on public policy. However, as long as that money continues to flow, it's one more tool we can utilize, albeit indirectly.

First, you give business leaders the chance to rethink their contribution criteria, commit to making campaign contributions contingent on support for immigration reform, and sign on with this cause. Then, you move on to publicly shame and blame members of the business community who refuse to put their money where their mouth is. Direct action, such as demonstrations, shareholder resolutions, and public condemnation up to and including boycotts, can all come into play. If you say "United Farm Workers" to the typical American of a certain age, they immediately think of "Boycott Gallo!" Most corporations would prefer not to be the Gallo of immigration reform.

We know which elected officials support immigration reform, and which don't. We also know that the ones who don't support it are mostly unreachable on the issue, until and unless it becomes necessary to win elections in their districts, and/or receive the financial contributions that help them stay in office. Focusing in on these campaign contributions heightens the contradictions in ways that hurt Republican immigration reform opponents the most. It puts the interests of the business community and the so-called "Tea Party" nativist movement in direct conflict, and in a manner that forces politicians to make hard choices as to which master they will serve.

When you look at the Venn diagram of Republican elected officials who are both dependent on corporate donors and publicly opposed to immigration reform, your targets are those at the intersection. That intersection contains a clear majority of current Republican office-holders. We who support immigration reform don't wield influence over them, but our supposed allies in business do. Perhaps when their financial backers come knocking to say that their support depends on moving immigration reform forward, recalcitrant elected officials will suddenly see the light. Time to cash that check. Heighten that contradiction. 

The more business can be forced to align its campaign spending with its goals, the better the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform become. Follow the money. Force the choice.

I welcome feedback and dissenting views in the comments and will attempt to address them as I can. If I've angered you by my public comments, I hope you can hear me say that while I'm not you, I share your goals. This is your issue of focus and I expect you to lead, and this is the path I think is most promising.

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