The outrage directed at President Obama for his flip flop on executive actions targeting immigrant detention/deportations has already run its course. Even the reform warrior Congressman Luis Gutierrez moved into reset space in a matter of 24 hours. So much for accounting for promises made and promises broken.
And so it goes in American politics. A few hands wringing, a patter of excoriation, a handful of ominous “we won’t forgets”, a plea to get out the vote and it’s on to the next new, new promise. Real world consequences be damned.
President Obama’s move to defer (or deep six) executive actions, surprised absolutely no one. After all, he plays in the Big Leagues of Power where switcheroos happen all the time. In the Big Leagues word claims come cheap, actions dear.
Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) leaders, funded mostly by “progressive” foundations, remain party men and women when push comes to shove and their party is overwhelmingly Democrat. Outsiders they are not. Being enmeshed in the intricacies and machinations of party politics requires lots of pivots and divots. No one, not one of them, has taken a good hard shot at the man at the top when the opportunity presented with his political chin exposed.
There’s more to this than the absence of an alternative which the Republicans at this time are not. CIR leaders are either domesticated or exiled. Outside voices are faced with the cold realities of this option. Time and again, as I noted in a spring blog, who gets in to the White House for the latest confab determines media recognition and, indirectly, funding prospects for the next round of advocacy.
CIR spokespersons and their funders have long viewed their core position as “inevitable”, the ultimate fixed fight. Demographics as destiny. The burgeoning Latino population sooner or later, they believe, will politically outgun their opponents. This affirmation is intended to comfort and bolster the disappointed, the bitter and the angry. But it’s also misleading and perhaps downright wrong. The inevitable future may be a very long time in the waiting and some very hard work in the making. Political change and inevitability are oxymoronic.
CIR leaders and funders - taken together - have been remarkably unsuccessful in building strong local organizing drives that are deep, institutional and multi dimensional. Grounded local work is either co-opted or dismissed. More than anything else this accounts for the sporadic protests, hand wringing and plucky threats that characterize their actions. Perhaps the best way to put it is that CIR leadership has been Sharptonized, substituting snappy quotes, website and database management, and a bit of street theater for serious organizing work.
Even in the best short term case - where President Obama comes through with serious executive actions that regularize the status of millions, not tens of thousands, of undocumented children and families - the thin organizational fabric on the ground is not positioned to capitalize on this eventuality or, for that matter, defend it. So much for inevitability.
In real time we are experiencing the limits of an ersatz movement that hasn’t yet sunk sufficiently deep roots to turn the political tide. There is nothing inevitable about how and when this may happen.
With the Democrat’s Senate majority in peril, Team Obama has rolled the dice in favor of doing nothing. Struggling to exit a political box of his own making, the President backed away from decisive executive action on immigrant detention and deportation in favor of no action at all. As most of the media would have it, he “punted”.
While his punt is designed to cool out some of the intensity of his political opponents, the real world consequences may overwhelm his stated intentions.
In the event Democrats lose the Senate, Team Obama’s immigration audible will have sown confusion among his own ranks. In the ramped up bite back by a unified Republican Congress, Team Obama, now in disarray, will confront a more formidable obstacle than his current predicament presents. Aggressive unilateral actions on behalf of undocumented families and children delivered in the face of a political defeat that includes loss of the Senate is a more perilous environment than the current standoff reflected in a divided Congress.
In point of fact, having vaguely referenced his next moves in advance without actually making them he has set up a referendum on his intentions, real or fictitious. Like a quarterback tipping his opponents to his next play, Team Obama seems poised to activate a bone crushing prevent defense.
Team Obama has created precisely the conditions in which real obstructive action by a unified, Republican controlled Congress becomes both possible and likely. If Republicans ascend to power in the Senate (and comfortably hold the House as universally predicted), a full blown constitutional crisis becomes possible when and if the President stays true to his most recent declarations.
Before his punt, President Obama was positioned to load up and take his best shot via executive action. That time has come and, if the Republicans capture the Senate, gone. Tens of thousands of immigrant families and the well being of the nation as a whole will suffer the consequences.
Frank C. Pierson, Jr.
Frank Pierson retired after forty years of work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a professional organizer. He began his career in 1971 in Chicago, moved to Queens, New York City and migrated west to work in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. He resides with his wife, Mary Ellen Kazda, in Oracle, Arizona. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org