Is executive-order toughness on immigration reform really worth shutting down our $4 trillion government again in a standoff with Republicans?
Sure, the U.S. immigration system itself—a bit rickety under the weight of 11 million undocumented immigrants and ranked ninth (pdf) out of 30 countries by the Immigration Policy Center—could use some fixing. But what else rooted in Washington policymaking doesn’t need fixing? At the moment, there’s little need to put a chain saw to the flower bed when all you need is mulch for maintenance. So immigration reform could probably stand in line.
Yet, less than three weeks after game-rattling midterm elections, and this is what’s front and center on the White House docket? As if an immediate and rather dramatic retooling of immigration policy through executive order was what President Barack Obama picked up when he told voters and nonvoters alike: “I hear you.”
Did he really, though? Multiple surveys, election exit polls and postmortem sampling show an electorate pretty iffy on immigration reform as a top policy thing. Sure, deportations and the plight of Dreamers hit the headlines really well, but it’s the little sibling trying to size itself up to way bigger concerns looming large on the American mind, most prominently the economy. Even Latinos, a diverse population unfairly typecast as monolithically obsessed with immigration reform, aren’t as pressed as we think they are about it.
In 2014 exit polls, “illegal immigration” ranked a distant third, at 14 percent, compared with the economy at 45 percent and health care at 25 percent in a list of most important issues. Foreign policy, at 13 percent, almost beat it. Republicans were, overwhelmingly, more concerned about the issue than Democrats—at 74 percent to 24 percent. That means that only 14 percent of the already paltry 36.6 percent minority that did vote are dictating Washington policy at the moment.
That’s an important detail: It means the president, a black Democrat universally despised by an extremely white Republican electorate, is really just getting tangled up in politics shaped by xenophobic white people in red states.
Immigration also ranks in the lower percentile of issues in recent YouGov (pdf) surveys. It’s the No. 9 pick of 14 when respondents are asked, “How important are the following issues to you?” And while 90 percent of Hispanics give it some importance, only 11 percent rank it as “the most important” issue, compared with 41 percent who see the economy as a top priority. The Pew Research Center also found that only 32 percent of Latinos claimed immigration was a major issue, compared with the 57 percent who viewed education as their top big worry.
While 9 percent of whites rank it as the most important issue, only 3 percent of blacks do—even as we find prominent black pundits egging the president on. “No doubt in my mind that Obama should do it,” says Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post. “Obama is setting a trap for them [Republicans],” writes David Love in The Grio. That’s merely partisan vengeance setting in, a wishful-thinking, yeah-let’s-stick-it-to-them approach that stands by the president out of fist-bump solidarity.
It’s not as if POTUS engaged in hard-line historic showdowns or government-closing dustups for his ride-or-die loyal African-American electorate. And, maybe for once, it would be nice if he did—especially since there’s no re-election to worry about. Where is he on the time bomb of underemployment and the long-term unemployed when the black jobless rate is still double digits? Poverty festers within schools and neighborhoods resegregated by race and class. There’s no legislative push from his White House on voting rights, and he’s queasy on the subject of police brutality and militarization. Folks are barely getting along, with low wage growth and shrinking incomes. If you want another budget face-off, why not go with those issues?
As one former black elected official once put it anonymously: “Immigration ain’t got nothing to do with us.” By “us,” the elected official clearly meant African Americans, 93 percent of whom were pivotal to Obama’s re-election prospects, compared with the 27 percent of voting Latinos who broke for Mitt Romney. And as Congressional Black Caucus members occasionally vex over White House preference for huddles with their Hispanic counterparts—along with the failure of the House and Senate to include a black voice in immigration-reform working groups—the relationship between this president and his black voting bloc is like a bothered coach who keeps benching his star veteran players in the middle of the second half. Even the habitual n-word user President Lyndon B. Johnson was willing to squeeze out an executive order on affirmative action, bully through the Voting Rights Act and declare an ill-fated war on poverty. So what gives?
Instead, we’re getting political dynamite under the bridge to slow the momentum of gloating congressional Republicans—a tactic that wouldn’t have been necessary if Democrats had simply campaigned better and dominated messaging. Hence, it’s highly questionable if immigration reform is the red-line presidential muscle flex you want, for a number of reasons. Even Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), fresh from a tight re-election bid in a state faced with a growing brown population of its own, cautions the move as “very combustible” when less Western-shootout options could be on the table.
As the president gloves up for another epic showdown with Republicans, it’s difficult to see the short-term satisfaction beyond poking emboldened GOP leaders in the eye and the long-term benefit of hoping Democrats dominate Latino voter loyalty in 2016. Neither path guarantees much success other than a partisan pissing match. And that’s not really policymaking—something most Americans, electoral participants and nonparticipants, have every right to expect.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.