How Obama Screwed Me Over on Immigration Reform

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In 2007, there was a window of opportunity for Comprehensive Immigration Reform to be passed. The Democrats had won the mid-terms and had control of both houses of congress. There was to have been a Grand Compromise, in particular helped along by the supposed "Gang of 12" - the same 12 senators, 6 Democrats and 6 Republicans, who had stood up against filibusters on judicial nominations.

I can't argue with the Economist, who at the time made the case that while the bill was "Better than Nothing (But not Much)." It was a flawed bill, and there were any number of things wrong with it. However it was as close as the federal government had gotten to useful and sensible reform in years if not decades. Importantly for me, it would have mean that economic migrants would be admitted not on the basis of "family ties," but on the basis of merit. Which privileges educated English speaking migrants like me. It also provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants from South America.

What was most important about what happened was that the right wing of the Republican party had chosen to stand up to their base and make the case against xenophobia and bigotry. The leadership of the party was trying to exactly be leaders and say to their constituents that they were acting in the best interests of all Americans, rather than pandering to the problematic predjudices of some conservatives.

In the face of that the Democrats decided to say no. They wanted to hold on to their mantle as the party of inclusion and to continue to paint the Republicans as bigots. It was in their interests to let the Republican backlash implode the party and cannibalise the moderates who were trying to pull the party into a more moderate stance on immigration. Of course this was also an attempt on the Republican side to outflank the Democrats on immigration to win over Latino votes.

But to me what matters was that the Republicans stood up to the worst instincts of their party and tried to get something useful done. They were only able to do so by making a razor thin compromise that came out of long and painful negotiations between both sides. The Democrats on the other hand decided to play politics. They decided to let the bill die instead of helping it stay alive, calculating that making the Republicans look predjudiced was worth their being obstructionist.

One of the last attempts to keep the bill alive was to open it up to amendments and discussion. However it was clear to everyone that because the compromise was so fragile, that if amendments seriously changed the bill, instead of simply providing a forum for discussion, the bill would be sunk. Enter Barack Obama.

He decided to hang an amendment that would sunset one of the most useful sections of the bill. He wanted to revisit the notion of a meritocratic basis for citizenship (rather than familial) after 5 years. Had the amendment passed, the bill would have had no chance of success. It's obvious to me that Obama was pandering to Latinos in trying to preserve a portion of the law that historically has been beneficial to them. Considering what the Republicans were doing in standing up to their constituents, Obama's amendment was a stunning act of political posturing at the expense of hard-won compromise.

In contrast, John McCain's record on immigration has exactly been one of standing up to his base at great personal and political expense. It's exactly this issue that almost destroyed his chances of running for President. And yet he stood up with President Bush and spoke on the side of good sense and good policy. Say what you will about the President, he did his very best, and put his personal political popularity to the side in trying to pass reforms of Social Security and Immigration when both are such controvertial issues.

In comparison, in one of the few moments in a shallow history of federal government, Obama has only shown an instinct for political posturing at the expense of useful bipartisan compromise.

Anyway, you can take a look at what Lindsey Graham's reaction was to Obama's amendment. A reaction that I think has gotten unfair coverage from the left, but that's also where the best footage is available online.

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This page contains a single entry by subtitles published on July 7, 2008 12:09 PM.

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