Predictions: President Obama’s Speech on Immigration

Students march asking Obama to stop deporting DREAM'ers, Los Angeles May Day 2011

During the last few days, the President has been ramping up his strategy to appeal to the Latino vote in preparation to the 2012 elections by convening with Senior Administration Officials and “stakeholders”, meeting with major Latino celebrities, and with the Hispanic Caucus.  All this culminated in the White House launching Winning the Future: President Obama’s Agenda and the Hispanic Community (PDF) and a complete website portal to match it.  During all these public events, the President again repeated the same line: that he does not have the executive authority to do anything about the deportations that have gone through the roof under the direction of his Department of Homeland Security.  Among other troubling tactics, we’re talking about aggressive immigrations raids that not only impact adults but that scar our children in a deep psycho-emotional way.  So why are immigrants’ rights activists saying that the President DOES have the authority to do something about it through his executive powers?  Because it’s true, as COLORLINES explains:

The folks over at the American Immigration Council published an informative memo, signed by two former INS general counsels, that outlines exactly how much power Obama’s got to keep immigrant families together.

From deferred action to deferred enforced departure, signing statements and humanitarian parole, there’s a whole menu of options that President Obama has—and that past presidents have used—to help keep immigrant families together. He is choosing not to use that power.

The law is the law, but law enforcement agencies exercise prosecutorial discretion at every step in every case. The AIC memo explains: “In the immigration context, prosecutorial discretion is exercised at every stage in the enforcement process—which tips or leads will be investigated, which arrests will be made, which persons will be detained, which persons will be released on bond, which cases will be brought forward for removal hearings or criminal prosecution, and which removal orders will be executed.”

The lying continues elsewhere. The Obama administration has publicly declared its enforcement efforts are targeted at deporting convicted criminals. But programs like 287(g) and the rapidly expanding Secure Communities have led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of non-citizens, and not just those without papers, who have never been convicted of any crime whatsoever, or who were forced out of the country for minor violations like shoplifting and traffic offenses.

“No matter how definitive or rigid a law may appear, the exercise of executive branch authority is critical to the ultimate implementation of the law,” said Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council. “The choice on immigration today is whether the president and his cabinet will act boldly to use their authority to improve the lives of millions, or will allow the current enforcement-only mindset to continue unabated.”

So why has the President been so hesitant to exercise his executive powers to provide some relief to the people that have supported him all along?  Being that President Obama happens to also be a Constitutional scholar, I think it’s highly likely that he DOES know he has the executive powers to keep immigrant families together.  In all likelihood, he is choosing to deny it because of two possibilities: he’s either too afraid of the political risks that it might carry or he’s planning to instead have Congress fight over it through legislation as a political play. 

We’re now getting ready for another one of President Obama’s speeches on immigration.  We’ve been here before: just last year in July, the President gave a speech that would be later followed up in December by five, mostly Conservative Democrats torpedoing the DREAM Act.  Could this time be different?  Well, in the aftermath of the President’s risky decision to go after Osama bin Laden the way he did, I tend (and secretly wish) that we’ll see a President more confident in his own authority to exercise unilateral action.  It wouldn’t be so far-fetched, as we’ve seen such a thing happen before in our history.  As Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out last Sunday on Meet the Press, after the Cuban missile crisis gamble, something inside President JFK changed, which led him to become a more decisive President.  

Part of me is hoping that we’ll see something similar in Obama: that the President’s speech, coming on the heels of Osama’s death, will reflect a newfound confidence in his own authority to address immigration in a more meaningful way, rather than just keep on playing P.R. theatrics.  The other part of me is more pessimistic: predicting that instead he’ll have the Democrats introduce some version of immigration reform legislation, which would result in a win-win situation politically for him.  When the legislation doesn’t pass (and this is the likeliest scenario being that ultra-conservative Republicans control the House), he can blame the Republicans, and Latinos respond by punishing them come election time.  If by some miracle it passes, Latinos reward Democrats with votes.  The President in this scenario would be banking on the Latino vote on either a punish/reward play.  Therein lies the rub, of course: is the President going to play politics, or is he going to change?  Is he going to be “change that we can believe in”?  Sadly, rumors surrounding the speech are not looking good: Frank Sharry, Founder and Executive Director of America’s Voice warns over at HuffingtonPost:

In addition to the meeting that the President had with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on immigration, two senior administration officials, Melody Barnes and Cecilia Muñoz, conducted an on-the-record question and answer session with reporters.  That provided an illuminating insight into the administration’s thinking on immigration: they’re worried about avoiding conflict.

Via Politico:

[Barnes] suggested the tactics would not include the White House introducing its own bill, as congressional Republicans wanted.

“Often when the White House just puts something on the table, it can become a point of conflict and not an inflection point to move forward,” Barnes said.

The same concern was voiced earlier this year, when the New York Times reported:

But senior administration officials said they did not want to make wider use of those powers for fear of deepening the conflict with [House Judiciary Committee Chairman] Mr. Smith and other Republicans, who might try to limit the authority granted by immigration law and further stiffen their opposition to measures like the Dream Act. The officials spoke anonymously, saying they could discuss policy more freely that way.

So what do you think?  Is the President going to avoid conflict or is he going to make a bold move?  He made a bold move with Osama.  Will he make another?

Update: the White House will be following the hashtag #immigration on Twitter.  If you’re on, be sure to tweet the following:

@BarackObama must enforce laws, & the law gives him power to STOP deporting #DREAMAct students #immigration #ENDOurPain