Littwin: Obama moves the ball on immigration, demands Congress pass a bill
November 23, 2014
If you watched the Obama immigration speech, or even if you didn't, it comes down to the same thing.
The speech was stirring, and yet some will call it manipulative.
His words freed 5 million people from the shadows, and yet some will call those same words an attempt to obscure a dark power grab.
People will reliably make the same arguments whether they saw it or not. The one thing we can agree on, after all, is that we don't agree. This was either Obama doing the right thing regardless of the cost or Obama making good on an unkept political promise and letting the rest of us pay.
I hope you did see the speech. It was all there, 15 minutes of vintage Obama, old-school Obama, a speech that reached heights without the need of speech-writerly flourishes. It was plainly, yet eloquently, told. Too many Obama speeches leave you wondering whatever happened to Obama the orator. This time he showed up.
This was Obama, just weeks after Shellacking II, saying that he was still here. And not just saying. There was the matter, too, of the 5 million and, yes, of Obama's bold decision to go it alone.
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This was the stuff of high drama. Off stage, Republicans were calling for, well, something — censure or a shutdown or more lawsuits or Ted Cruz slyly delivering a speech from the Senate floor as a Roman set piece in which Obama is seen overthrowing the Republic.
And yet, the TV networks didn't see the need to show the speech, leaving our lowercase-d democracy to the shout-fests on cable news. It was a pretty shocking decision given the stakes, and yet somehow not at all surprising, although some stations actually snubbed the networks and showed the speech anyway.
What no one can dispute is that these are the times in which we live, and that the Obama speech, whatever its merits, came too late to change much of that.
Obama did have a story to tell, though. He had several stories, in fact. He first countered the Republican brief against him. The border has never been more secure, he pointed out, and the fences never higher. Deportations were up, crossings down. The accusation that he's inviting Latinos to cross the border — in what the Tancredistas call an invasion — amounts to nothing but talk.
And then there's the matter of executive authority. He wasn't the first or second or third president to use it as a tool in setting immigration policy. Reagan used it. Bush Sr. used it. If Obama was working with larger numbers — and if Obama himself had questioned whether a president had the authority — Obama offered an easy answer. If Republicans objected, they had a way out: pass a bill. If it sounded like a dare, that's because it was. He really did draw a line in the sand, and this time Republicans are furious.
To pass a bill, of course, Republicans would first have to craft a plan beyond, say, self-deportation. The Senate passed a bipartisan plan with 68 votes, but House Republicans were having none of it. But without a plan, someday a Republican president could be faced with overturning Obama's orders, taking immigrant mothers from their citizen children, clinching the Latino vote for Democrats forevermore. Agreeing to a plan has to be an easier course than that.
Obama made a more interesting argument on amnesty. He said what we have now is amnesty — amnesty from the rule of law. He said the 11 million immigrants here want something different — a chance, as he put it, "to get right with the law." He said that bringing people out of the shadows would make it tougher on the criminals and easier on the children.
"Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?" Obama asked. "Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility and give their kids a better future?"
This was at the heart of Obama's case. There are 11 million immigrants without documents, and something must be done. Leaving them in the shadows can't be an option for Americans who believe in justice. If House Republicans wouldn't even address the issue, he had no choice but to do what he could.
Polling shows that most Americans want this issue put behind them, even if it means — note to John Hickenlooper — a pathway to citizenship. Of course, the recent polling also shows that most object to Obama's unilateral path.
For Obama, that was the point of the speech — reframing the argument from one of executive overreach to one of America's sense of itself as a nation of immigrants. Obama quoted from the Book of Exodus on the immigrant: "Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too."
Did the speech change anyone's mind? I don't know. Once, long ago, in the early Obama years, it might have. But, in any case, the speech did tell the story of how presidential action would lead to 5 million changed lives, and that might have to be enough.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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