Obama's second term: The case for immigration reform

Thanks to historically high Latino turnout on Election Day, immigration reform might finally be an imperative for both parties

Members of immigration rights organizations demonstrate in front of the White House on Nov. 8, calling on President Obama to fulfill his promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

As President Obama plans his second-term agenda, high on the list of priorities is likely one of the unfulfilled promises from his first term: Overhauling the U.S. immigration system. In a September appearance on Spanish-language channel Univision, Obama said that the lack of comprehensive immigration reform was his "greatest failure" as president, and he vowed to make a push for such legislation in 2013, if re-elected. He was re-elected, of course, thanks largely to a towering majority (71 percent) of not only the growing Latino vote, but also 73 percent of Asian voters. "I feel very optimistic about, in my view, immigration reform," Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday. After this election, "it's a different day."

The issue: Immigration reform

An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S., and they exist in a legal no man's land: Businesses, farmers, and homeowners hire them, many of them raise families, and yet they live with the constant risk of being caught and deported. The building blocks of a comprehensive fix were laid out in legislation hashed out in 2006 and 2007 — tightened border security, new methods to prevent companies from hiring illegal workers, reforms to allow more temporary foreign workers, and a path to citizenship for at least some of the immigrants living here already, especially any children they brought to the U.S.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

That effort fell apart over the path-to-citizenship issue — Republicans tagged it as "amnesty," and have "hardened their line with each election, moving far away from the big-tent strategy promoted by then-President George W. Bush," says Politico. Obama didn't make a push for comprehensive reform in his first two years, when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, focusing instead on the economic stimulus, health care reform, and new banking regulations. In his second two years, Republicans controlled the House, and reform was off the table.

Why Obama might succeed

The record Latino turnout in the election was a prod to Democrats — and a warning to Republicans. "In the next term," predicted David Gergen on CNN, "we will get immigration reform. Democrats want it and Republicans now need it." From a "nakedly political" standpoint, says The Week's Marc Ambinder, Republicans know that "if they compromise on immigration reform, they'll take the issue off the table for future elections."

Many Republicans seem to agree. "This issue has been around far too long," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told ABC News two days after the election. "A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all." Maybe more importantly, Rupert Murdoch and his influential media outlets seem to be pushing for reform:

"Must have sweeping, generous immigration reform, make existing law-abiding Hispanics welcome. Most are hard-working family people," Murdoch himself tweeted, adding, "Republicans have to ignore 5 percent nativists, embrace Hispanics."

"Something broken-hearted GOP voters should ponder as they try to make sense of their defeat," said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial, is that "the antagonistic attitude that the GOP too often exhibits toward America's fastest-growing demographic group on immigration policy goes far to explain Tuesday's result."

We need to "get rid of the immigration issue altogether," Fox News firebrand Sean Hannity said on his radio show. "It's simple to me to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here — you don't say you've got to go home. And that is a position that I've evolved on. Because, you know what, it's got to be resolved. The majority of people here, if some people have criminal records you can send them home, but if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done."

The GOP doesn't have an "intrinsic, ethnic-affinity problem" with Latinos, but rather a "policy problem," conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer told Fox News. "I think Republicans can change their position, be a lot more open to actual amnesty with enforcement — amnesty, everything short of citizenship — and to make a bold change in their policy."

Democrats have their own reasons to pass immigration legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — whose own razor-thin 2010 win is credited to Nevada's Latino voters — rates immigration reform as a "high priority," for example. And Latino reform advocates are losing patience. "The Latino giant is wide awake, cranky, and taking names," said Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union, a leader of Latino mobilization in battleground states.

Why Obama might fall short

We've been down this road before. Republicans leaders may be "signaling for the first time in five years that the party will get serious about immigration reform," says Politico, but "the chances of enacting a comprehensive overhaul remain low, given deep-rooted opposition in GOP ranks to creating a pathway to citizenship." Underscoring that point, conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) sounded off on Twitter: "Obama voters chose dependency over Liberty. Now establishment R's want citizenship for illegals. You can't beat Santa Claus with amnesty."

At the same time, a handful of Senate Democrats from red states are up for re-election in 2014, and they may be reluctant to support an immigration law that is unpopular among their constituents. There are two key questions, says Ted Hessen at ABC-Univision. First, will House 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 second question mark is Obama. "He could attack immigration reform as he did health care. Or he could ignore it and hope it goes away." Thanks to Latino voters, "immigration reform is possible in the next four years but by no means a guarantee."

Read more analysis of Obama's second term:

-The case for intervening in Syria

Sources: ABC/Univision, ABC News, Bloomberg Businessweek, Politico (2,3), The Wall Street Journal

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us