The Obama Administration will be licking its wounds the rest of this week after a brutal front-page story in Monday’s New York Times chronicling its mishandling of immigration reform. The story demonstrates, in damning detail, how the White House has failed to placate its critics, has alienated its allies, has miscalculated on political strategy, and—worst of all—has badly fumbled on policy. It may not be too drastic to read this story as evidence that comprehensive immigration reform, perhaps Obama’s highest second-term priority, is a dead prospect until at least 2016.
The Times piece is made especially harsh by a succession of quotes from allies willing to slam Obama on the record. The executive director of the National Immigration Law Center accused the White House of “spin” and said it has “has devastated immigrant communities across the country, tearing families away from loved ones.” The president of the National Council of La Raza joined the activists who have taken to calling Obama the “deporter in chief.” The last word in the piece goes to Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, who nearly accuses Obama of misleading activists about his immigration policy. And those are the people on Obama’s side! The President doesn’t even have Republican goodwill to show for all his trouble on the left: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is charging him with “nullifying” immigration law “under the guise of setting ‘priorities.’”
Infuriating people on both sides of a debate is forgivable if you’re making progress on policy. But the Administration has little progress to show for its trouble; indeed, it has often bungled the implementation of those minor reforms it did attempt.
Chief among these reforms, as Senator Sessions suggested, is a revived effort at setting priorities. In a 2011 memo, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recommended that agents prioritize enforcement against criminal and repeat offenders, and not (for instance) the elderly, those with American citizen spouses or children, or young people pursuing education. Despite what many conservatives claim, there’s a precedent for this; similar directives were issued during both the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. And in the absence of a reform law, this memo became especially important for Obama’s credibility among activists. Look, the message went. I can’t pass a reform law because Republicans in Congress will block it. But I can take steps to make sure we’re focusing on criminals, not breaking up families.
There was just one problem: The Administration largely failed to follow through. I covered this story for about a year and spoke to many undocumented immigrants who should have qualified for relief—people with no criminal record, who had children in this country, who were long-standing members of their communities. Despite meeting the memo’s criteria, many found themselves targeted for deportation, and their pleas for consideration under ICE’s own policy often fell on deaf ears (at least until the threat of bad publicity came along). The Times story bears this out: During this Administration, “the enforcement net actually grew, picking up more and more immigrants with minor or no criminal records.”
Why has the White House failed to live up to its own promise? One reason has received far too little coverage: Many of the agents tasked with carrying out the President’s policy don’t agree with it, and there’s very little pressure to make sure they comply. At ICE, many agents—though certainly not all—are hostile to this policy, and, it’s pretty clear, this President. The union representing immigration officers opposes enforcement prioritization. Though the practice is long-established, they say it’s too complicated to implement. In written statements, they have bashed “policies related to amnesty.” The president of the union has claimed Obama is creating a “law outside the law” and criticized the Administration on FOX News. When I interviewed him in 2011, he sneered that the agency was led by “a bunch of attorneys who have never put handcuffs on anybody.”
Immigration enforcement is a huge, sprawling bureaucracy, and it’s difficult for D.C.-based officials to control ICE field offices where agents have an enforcement-first mindset. Still, it would not have been impossible for the Administration to stand firm on its goals—just difficult, and politically risky. Conservatives love to stick angry ICE agents in front of television cameras, and a strong push for prioritization against the ICE union might have led to a very public fight.
But if the White House had taken this risk, immigration advocates would have rallied to its side. Yes, conservatives would have howled, but they’re already accusing Obama of nullification. And most important of all, the President would have done a better job implementing his own policy. No, this would not have completely solved the problem—short of a comprehensive reform law, nothing will. But would it have been any worse than the situation in which Obama finds himself today?