On Thursday night, President Barack Obama announced a unilateral executive action on immigration. Republicans in Washington reacted predictably, with righteous indignation and threats of reprisals. The fact that we’ve gotten to this point is yet another example of the failure of Washington to deal with our country’s most pressing issues.
In 2009, after winning the presidency and seeing an expansion of Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, President Obama commented that “elections have consequences.” On Thursday Obama signaled that one of those consequences was that he was going to ignore the Republicans.
Having just run a U.S. Senate race against the political establishment in Washington, I understand that impulse. And while I agree with the policy objectives represented by comprehensive immigration reform, an executive order that can be undone by the next president doesn’t provide the certainty that undocumented workers and businesses need.
For decades, Washington has demonstrated a remarkable lack of courage as it relates to dealing with immigration. Since at least the 1970s the executive and legislative branches — at different times controlled by both Republicans and Democrats — have kicked this can down the road for future leaders to address. In fact, since 1967 the number of undocumented people in the United States has risen from fewer than 1 million to more than 11 million people today.
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When I entered the Senate race this year to represent Kansas, I was cautioned to stay away from discussing immigration reform. Many Republican members of Congress and their constituencies oppose comprehensive reform, resorting instead to impossible platitudes about sealing the border and deporting 11 million people. Many Democrats and their union constituencies had some of the same serious reservations. It was a loser issue. In fact, less than a week after I announced my independent candidacy, Eric Cantor, then the Republican House majority leader, lost his primary election to a no-name challenger whose sole issue was Cantor’s supposed support for immigration reform.
Good politics, however, is often bad policy. So I decided to lean in and embrace comprehensive reform. I believe we can have secure borders and a humane immigration policy. The policy I articulated on my campaign maintained our commitment to secure borders, but would also allow undocumented workers to remain in the country, work here, pay taxes and raise their families here.
At the time, my understanding of immigration reform was largely academic. I knew the numbers — 11.5 million people affected, billions of dollars in deferred business investments driven by the uncertainty of immigration policy, and thousands of both blue and white-collar jobs left unfilled due to a lack of workers.
On the campaign trail, however, I encountered the real life implications of our failed policy on immigration. Families tearfully described to me how one of their family members was deported. Kids talked about joining gangs as a means to support themselves economically. Stories were shared of undocumented workers extorted by American citizens or otherwise becoming victims of crime and afraid to call the police. At that point, I believed our lack of policy to not only be ineffective but also immoral.
Exit polls suggested that 3 out of 4 voters who considered illegal immigration to be their top issue voted for my opponent. Regardless of that outcome, I still believe it was the right decision to talk about solving the problem instead of ignoring it.
In some senses, Obama is making up for his own failures on immigration reform. While he laments the 16 months that the House Republicans have had to come up with their own version of immigration reform, he must be acutely aware that this problem is in part of his own making. In 2009, after his historic victory, he had the political capital and the numbers to push through comprehensive immigration reform. He had different priorities. He chose not to subject his own re-election chances to the whims of immigration politics.
And while past presidents have also used executive action to address immigration related issues, the lack of a permanent solution represents yet another failure of leadership in Washington. Obama needs to do more to engage Republicans on this issue. House Republicans also need to do their part. They either need to articulate their version of comprehensive reform, clearly and unambiguously for the American public, or they need to state once and for all and for the record that they have no interest in resolving this problem.
Having acted unilaterally, the president implicitly suggests that he thinks this issue is of significant importance. I agree. Now the president needs to back that up by working with the Republicans to come up with a practical, enforceable long-term solution.
Elections do have consequences. If House Republicans want to beef up the border security aspects of the bill or implement the E-Verify system as part of it, the president should accommodate those requests. If they want to throw something else in the mix, say a territorial tax system for multi-national corporations or Social Security disability reform, the president should be open to compromise. Obama needs to demonstrate how important he believes this issue is by not only acting unilaterally, but by also swallowing some Republican priorities to make it permanent.
The Republicans, for their part, need to grow up and make some real decisions instead of simply continuing to speak in platitudes about an issue that has significant human, moral, and economic implications.
Greg Orman, a Kansas businessman, ran this year as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate.