President Barack Obama dubbed 2014 a year of action, but for those eager for immigration reforms it is for now a year to sit back and wait on Republicans.
Although Obama called for getting immigration done this year, he kept the rhetoric in check. He repeatedly defined the meaning of citizenship, and he stayed clear of insisting Republicans include citizenship in the immigration bills they are compiling, something he has done in the past.
“It is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders and law enforcement and fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said in the few lines of his speech spent on immigration.
Though many of his supporters on immigration reform hoped for it, his pledge to exercise executive authority for working Americans on minimum wage and other issues didn’t include a promise to stop deportations, staying consistent with the administration’s position that he can’t constitutionally do so.
Obama’s allies, therefore, find themselves forced to temper their criticism for now, because oddly, immigration is one of the few areas where there is significant agreement and a degree of bipartisan support.
“I think the president’s audience on that topic (immigration) was frankly more for the Republicans than the more general public,” said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy for the liberal Center for American Progress. “It was helpful that he didn’t say that much.”
By sticking to the economic benefits of immigration and naming the range of stakeholders who support immigration reform, Obama reminded Republicans “that the outliers are that party if we don’t get this done,” Kelley said Wednesday.
She noted that Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who shared the 2012 ticket with Mitt Romney as the GOP vice presidential nominee, stood up and clapped and Cantor and Boehner applauded when the president said immigration needed to get done this year.
In coming days, House Republicans are expected to release their fundamental principles that frame their direction on a string of immigration bills. Some bills already have been passed out of committee but work continues on key issues of legalization and children of immigrants who came with their parents illegally to the country.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House GOP Caucus, siganled the direction of the GOP principles.
“And yes, it’s time to honor our history of legal immigration,” she said. “We’re working on a step-by-step solution to immigration reform by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest and hardest working from around the world.”
Kika Matos, spokeswoman for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, issued a statement after the speech supporting Obama’s call for action by Republicans on immigration reform. She criticized Republicans for inaction.
She made clear, however, that the willingness to sit back and wait is limited.
“We will not allow the president to have it both ways,” she said.
“While the president has signaled that he is willing to use his executive authority to advance his domestic agenda, he has refused to do so in the area of immigration reform,” Matos said.
Despite the fact that Republicans appear ready to move on immigration reform, the reality is the president’s declared “year of action” is coming in a year of mid-term elections.
“I think it is highly unlikely given the current shape of Congress and a Republican base that wants to push for no action whatsoever,” said Rodolfo Espino, associate director at the Arizona State University School of Politics and Global Studies.
The midterm elections also will make it more difficult for some Republicans to agree with more moderate members of the party, he said.
On climate change, minimum wage and immigration, Espino said he doesn’t expect any major legislation this year or the rest of Obama’s second term.
But getting nothing done will only spur Obama to take executive action, said Vanessa Cardenas, vice president of Progress 2050 at the liberal Center for American Progress.
“If the GOP continues to obstruct, that will only lead to more executive action. In brief, expect action this year, and a lot of the policies he outlined – jobs in infrastructure, focus on work training programs, immigration reform, increasing the minimum wage, etc. – will greatly benefit the Latino community,” Cardenas said.