President Obama celebrated the naturalization of 13 U.S. service members and seven military spouses in South Korea on Friday, congratulating the new American citizens and expressing his pride at joining the ceremony at the National War Memorial in Seoul.
“If there’s anything this should teach us, it is that America is strengthened by our immigrants," he said, repeating his determination to reform the U.S. immigration system. Meanwhile, back in Washington, his administration remains wedged between a congressional Republican-generated rock-and-hard-place on the issue of immigration reform, as it has for nearly a year.
Twenty-two Republican senators signed a letter to the president on Thursday, expressing “grave concerns” about changes to immigration enforcement that the Department of Homeland Security is reportedly considering.
The letter was penned by some of the Senate’s most conservative members, such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and David Vitter of Louisiana, among others. In it, they accuse Obama of “incrementally nullifying immigration enforcement” during the time he’s been in office and “allowing preventable crimes harming innocent people to take place every day.” The changes that DHS is reportedly considering, they write, “would represent a near complete abandonment of basic immigration enforcement and discard the rule of law and the notion that the United States has enforceable borders.”
How would Obama bring about this border Armageddon? Let’s back up to last June, when the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that, among other things, aimed to provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States, while simultaneously cracking down on southern border crossings with $30 billion-worth of increased security. Almost a year later, thanks to a stubborn Republican-led House of Representatives, the reform is hardly any closer to becoming law. While Obama has been working to convince House Republicans that he is serious about tightening border security, touting his two million-plus deportation record in hopes of coaxing a compromise, he’s also been looking for ways to present himself as more compassionate to the immigration advocates who’ve unaffectionately nicknamed him “Deporter-in-Chief.”
It’s a tough line to straddle, since anything Obama does to appease one side is seen as a big middle finger by the other. For their part, immigration reform foes have been accusing the Obama administration of acting outside the law ever since 2011, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were encouraged to use “prosecutorial discretion” in determining who to deport. A series of directives—nicknamed the “Morton Memos” for then-ICE Director John Morton, who issued them—divided undocumented immigrants into categories. According to the Morton Memos, criminals, national-security threats, known gang members—and anyone else who posed a threat to public safety—along with people caught illegally re-entering the country or engaging in immigration fraud, were to be considered a priority for deportation. Veterans and military members, minors, the elderly, pregnant or nursing women, anyone with a mental or physical disability or other type of serious health condition, people who have been living in the U.S. since childhood, and law-abiding residents, were not.
Republicans saw the Morton Memos as Obama going easy on illegal immigrants, dividing a group of people who, to their minds, were all essentially lawbreakers into different classes and providing exemptions for some. Meanwhile, immigration reform advocates on the left also slammed the president for the Morton Memos, arguing they didn’t go far enough in protecting immigrants. Instead of the historically popular practice of “returning,” or quietly sending undocumented immigrants back to their home country on a bus, immigration agents under Obama’s watch have been apprehending more people than ever at the border and “removing,” or officially deporting them (which indisputably has had an influence on the rising deportation numbers). With one official deportation on her record, a person caught trying to illegally re-enter the country immediately becomes a felon and a priority for deportation a second time around. This practice, immigration advocates say, is tearing families apart.
Last month, Obama offered a concession. During a meeting with Hispanic lawmakers, he announced that he was ordering Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to conduct a review of the ICE’s deportation policy and find a way to make it more humane. Republicans, in turn, were not pleased. “Fifty million working-age Americans in this country don’t have jobs,” the communications director for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Al) said at the time. “And what does the president do? He takes more steps that would provide companies with illegal workers.”
Fast-forward to this week, when the Associated Press reported that the DHS is considering cutting back on deportations by removing people with limited criminal records, or records that only consist of repeated immigration violations, from the priority list. Cue the Senate letter, accusing the president of “look[ing] for new ways to weaken” immigration enforcement, and the Republican freak-out.
“What’s making Republicans unhappy is that Obama has effectively removed the threat of deportation to the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.,” says Simon Rosenberg, former adviser to the Clinton administration and president and founder of the center-left think tank National Democrat Network. “The fact that all but 10,000 who were deported last year were border crossers or criminals shows that this is a very different immigration system. There aren’t that many classes of people [Obama] can bring relief to before it becomes unacceptable.”
Rosenberg, who has been a vocal defender of the Obama administration’s deportation record, argues that immigration advocates on the left need to give the president more credit for the drastic changes he’s already made to immigration policy and stop pressuring him to make sweeping moves that could weaken his chances of getting House Republicans to pass the comprehensive immigration reform bill. “There isn’t much more he can do,” Rosenberg says.
House Speaker John Boehner, who rejected last year’s Senate bill, has recently indicated that he is eager to pass immigration legislation, even reportedly saying he was “hellbent on getting this done this year,” at a Las Vegas fundraiser last month. Still, Boehner has been clear that any kind of compromise would be impossible unless Republicans feel they can trust the president.
“I’ve tried to get the House to move on this now for the last 15 or 16 months,” Boehner said on Fox News this month. “But every time the president ignores the law, like the 38 times he has on Obamacare, our members look up and go, ‘Wait a minute: You can’t have immigration reform without strong border security and internal enforcement, how can we trust the president to actually obey the law and enforce the law that we would write?’”
At a Rotary Club in his home district of Southwest Ohio Thursday, Boehner actually mocked his Republican colleagues for not wanting to take on the difficult task of reforming the country’s immigration policy. “Here’s the attitude. Ohhhh. Don’t make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard,” the Speaker whined, explaining that he hasn’t even been able to get the House to consider changing immigration laws step-by-step rather than all at once as the Senate proposed. “We get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to…They’ll take the path of least resistance.”
Earlier this week, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said that Secretary Johnson “has undergone a very rigorous and inclusive process to best inform the review,” but that “any report of specific considerations at this time would be premature.” Regardless of the outcome of Johnson’s review, Obama is bound to get serious pushback from both sides—meaning any type of reform could still be a long time coming.