He promised to take initiative: On Thursday, Nov. 20, Barack Obama opened the way for the provisional regularization of some 5 million undocumented immigrants, out of a total of 11 million living in the United States under the threat of deportation. “Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character,” explained the American president during a brief formal address at the White House, promising a “more fair and more just” system.
A Major Decision?
Without a doubt. The measures Barack Obama announced on immigration will have serious consequences for a long time. “This will be the most important immigration measure in 50 years — since the 1965 change in immigration law,” confided Jorge Ramos, the star journalist of the Hispanic channel Univision to Time magazine. “In terms of numbers, it’ll have a wider impact than the 1986 amnesty.”
On paper, the suspension of deportations is not amnesty for the 5 million immigrants who have established themselves in the United States for a long time, or who have families that have done so, but Ramos is right to highlight that “although it’ll be temporary, Republicans will have a very hard time rejecting it and not being seen as anti-immigrant or anti-Latino.”
An Illegal Decision?
Even before the measures were announced, tough, marginal, rightist groups were apoplectic. A senator from Texas accused Obama of “provoking a constitutional crisis” by acting in an “unconstitutional and illegal” manner, and an elected member from the state of New York has promised an impeachment proceeding, while Sen. Ted Cruz, hero of the tea party, was at a loss for words, seeing Obama “acting like a monarch.” The most aggressive of all was Sen. Tom Coburn from Oklahoma, “You're going to see — hopefully not — but you could see instances of anarchy. ... You could see violence.” An incentive limit!
In reality, former law professor Barack Obama has carefully studied the legality of his decisions, removing measures specifically intended for agricultural workers or "Dreamers" — children born overseas who grew up in the United States and are still undocumented as adults — for a single reason: They risk being rejected on a legal level.
A Decision Without Precedent?
Far from it. In 1986, Republicans barely shied away when Reagan prevented the break-up of immigrant families, authorizing those who had entered the country illegally in the years prior to 1982 to stay. Three million people were legalized. Before that, Roosevelt had authorized temporary Mexican workers to stay in the United States during the war, an arrangement Roosevelt’s successors prolonged until the 1960s. Amnesty in this country built by immigration is nothing exceptional.
A Popular Decision?
That depends, according to who? If we believe what a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll says, 48 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s choice to act via executive order, but almost 6 in 10 Americans support the idea of a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and 74 percent declare their support when they get an explanation of the law that the Senate — but not the House of Representatives — voted in the year before, which opens a possible path toward legalization for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. Obama reiterated this ambivalence: His measures are not “amnesty,” but “we are … a nation of immigrants.”
Will the white voters, who make up 75 percent of the electorate, hear him? That's a good question.
Businesses, for their part, have a tendency to support temporary legalization, and those who are high-tech do their song and dance about too-large of a quota for qualified immigrants. Recently, when the right of the right suggested provoking a major crisis by preventing the government from functioning — the famous “shutdown” — the Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, very close to the Koch brothers, expressed their disagreement loud and clear.
An Irresponsible Decision?
This is a well-known argument that Newt Gingrich took up again on CNN on Nov. 20: All amnesty becomes a vacuum to immigrants, encouraging foreigners to come to the United States in the hope of benefiting from the next mass legalization. This fear is largely widespread in a period of rampant immigration, much less when this runs dry. Yet, a reduction in immigration to the United States has marked the last few years: In 2012, the country recorded 11.2 million undocumented immigrants, the same figure as in 2009, and a decrease compared to the 2007 record. As a percentage of the population, the share of undocumented immigrants has moved from 4 percent in 2007 to 3.5 percent in 2012.
The most significant twist concerns Mexico: The number of undocumented Mexican immigrants has decreased by 500,000 between 2009 and 2012, and it has very likely continued to decrease since then. The number of deportations — 438,000 in 2013 — has played a role, but the most important factor is the economic growth south of the Rio Grande, which has led to the stabilization of millions of Mexicans in the country.
Yes and no. It is true that Obama had promised a major immigration reform during the first year of his first term, when Democrats controlled the two houses of Congress. Preoccupied by the reform vote on the health care system, he did not keep his promise. More recently, he dragged his feet, taking back his decision the day after the midterm elections so as not to put Democratic candidates in conservative states in a difficult position.
However, in January 2013, he announced that he would proceed via executive order if Congress were seen as incapable of passing a law — which is exactly what happened. As it happens, it was the Republicans who were unwilling: They conceded to pressure from their right by burying the law the senators voted in, and they are satisfied with a system where undocumented immigrants are called upon to stay indefinitely — even if on the ground, such a situation is sinful, absurd and impractical.
A Clever Decision?
It has been a long time since Obama delivered such a strong speech, characterized by principle and reason. It's true that his power play is a true gamble, and no one can say who will win the political power struggle over the next few months.
For the time being, it is Republicans who are the most embarrassed: They dreamed of rebuilding their reputation, passing some compromise law that would have allowed them to get to the 2016 presidential election as leaders in charge. Instead, their internal divisions are erupting anew regarding the most sensitive subject of all: immigration. The right can allow itself to remain in the minority among Latinos, but its candidate will have all the troubles in the world to carry in 2016 if minorities have turned against Republicans.
Already, the remarks of Michelle Bachmann about the “illiterates” whom we will legalize scatter panic among moderate Republicans. “Only a few” comments of this type would be enough to alienate Latinos, John McCain commented.
A Decision that Comes at the Right Time?
Fairly late, if the goal was to bare their teeth to the right. Obama could and should have done so many years earlier, but if he wanted to redeem himself with the Hispanic community, which he disappointed, Obama could not have imagined a better moment: His announcement coincided with the Latin Grammy Awards ceremony, one of the biggest hits of the year for the Hispanic channel Univision, with 10 million viewers. Univision hurried to postpone the start of the ceremony, which started just after the presidential interlude!
Another coincidence, which possibly wasn’t one: In Mexico, Nov. 20 was Revolution Day, a major national festival, a day of celebration, and good news for immigrants: That’s what we call good timing.