Supporters of a revamp of America’s unconscionable immigration system are in despair. Two weeks ago, it seemed that progress on the reforms that Barack Obama has been asking for since first becoming President was at last in the offing, but now they are being told: not so fast. They are also being asked to believe that this is all the President’s fault. They would laugh but for their crying.
The fecklessness of the Republicans is sometimes dumbfounding. At the start of this month they emerged from a policy retreat in Maryland promising finally to dust off a draft bill passed by the Senate last year and try to do something with it. Off to the races at last. “The serious problems in our immigration system must be solved, and we are committed to working in a bipartisan manner to solve them,” a policy paper said grandly. The failure to move forward “is hurting our economy and jeopardising our national security”.
Hurting the party’s political fortunes too, it should have added. No one has forgotten that Latinos, the country’s fastest growing demographic, went for Mr Obama by 71 per cent over Mitt Romney in 2012. Finding its way back into the good graces of minority voters is the only possible way for Republicans to win the White House back next time. Sitting on immigration reform surely isn’t going to help.
But the blue sky was quickly smudged out. John Boehner, the man who is in charge of the Republican majority in the House (but clearly isn’t), stepped forward at the end of last week to say: terribly sorry, but we won’t be tackling immigration this year after all. The reason he gave: that “the American people, including many of my members, don’t trust that the reform that we’re talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be”. In other words, give Mr Obama an immigration inch and he will turn it into a mile.
There is no evidence he’d do any such thing. When it comes to the enforcement of immigration law, he has been startlingly, even depressingly, ruthless, deporting two million people found here illegally since 2009, far more than George W Bush ever did. And while he clearly prefers a single, sweeping bill taking in all aspects of reform, he has said that if Republicans prefer to approach it in more timid, piecemeal fashion, he’d live with it.
Enforcement, including at America’s border, is not the real issue. Amnesty is. This is the part of the reform that would deal finally with at least 11 million people already in the US, working, paying taxes, raising their children and so forth. Mr Obama wants to offer them a path to full citizenship. Mr Boehner seemed ready, at least, to accept that they should have the chance to become legal, presumably with green cards.
No one actually says “amnesty” out loud any more because that triggers instant apoplexy among Tea Party members and their supporting conservative action committees which have made camp all around Capitol Hill. But that is what it essentially would – and should – be. So when Mr Boehner all of a sudden says: “No, I can’t”, it’s not because of Mr Obama, it’s because of them.
“The injustice of the current system is incredible,” Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, said of America’s current way of dealing with immigration. It’s almost as incredible as Mr Boehner’s inability to exert control over his own party on an issue he knows can’t be skirted for ever, and only does it harm.