Obama’s New Immigration Pivot Isn’t About Immigration

It's about putting political pressure on House Republicans as elections approach.

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Drew Angerer / Bloomberg / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform, in the East Room of the White House, on Oct. 24, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

President Obama called Thursday on the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to take up the comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate. “This is not an idea whose time has come,” Obama said, “This is an idea whose time has been around for years now. . . and this is the moment when we should be able to the job done.”

The move is the latest in a pattern of efforts by Democrats to increase political pressure on Republicans, who have already ruled out the Senate bill, in the hopes of using the issue in the 2014 and 2016 elections. President Barack Obama took the podium in the White House State Dining Room last week to mark the end of the shutdown and laid out his priorities for the coming months. At the top of the list was a renewed push for comprehensive immigration reform. Congressional Democrats likewise are onboard with the new push. “I look forward to the next venture, which is making sure we do immigration reform,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last week.

But privately, administration officials and congressional Democrats admit that they are unlikely to get immigration reform through Congress any time soon. Minutes after Obama spoke, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner released a statement rejecting Obama’s calls for a comprehensive plan. “The House will not consider any massive, Obamacare-style legislation that no one understands,” Buck wrote. “Instead, the House is committed to a common sense, step-by-step approach that gives Americans confidence that reform is done the right way.”

Obama has long approached the issue of immigration cautiously, preferring to let congressional Democrats shoulder the burden of trying to push legislation through Congress—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by activists. Obama has deported illegal immigrants at a faster rate than any other president, quickly approaching 2 million deportations in five years in office. That careful path shifted in 2012 when Obama signed an executive order deferring action for young illegal immigrants, known by advocates as “DREAMers” for the stymied legislation that would grant them a path to citizenship. The poll-tested election-year action helped Obama capture over 70 percent of the national Hispanic vote last November, and quickly after the election Obama made immigration reform a top priority.

Earlier this year the conditions were ripe for a compromise. Moderate Republicans, sensing that their party was rushing toward a demographic time bomb, were ready to compromise. Now the situation is entirely different. Some Republican proponents, like Sen. Marco Rubio, have gone quiet. The shutdown and debt limit battle has only emboldened the party’s conservative wing, who are less likely than ever before to embrace a part of the president’s agenda.

“We’ve kicked this particular can down the road too long,” Obama said. But the latest turn to immigration is more about kicking the GOP when it’s down. Immigration reform remains popular nationally, and the GOP establishment openly admits the party is on the wrong side of the issue. “Now it’s up to Republicans in the House to decide whether reform becomes a reality or not,” Obama said, directing the public’s blame on the most unpopular political entity in America.

“I also believe that good policy is good politics in this instance,” Obama added. They certainly are for him.