Last night, President Obama announced his expansion of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) via “executive action,” allegedly shielding up to 5 million additional illegal immigrants from deportation on top of the over 600,000 approved under the current measure. While many immigrant-rights groups are cheering, Republicans, including those who support immigration reform, are fuming. But the new policy at hand — protection from deportation for many immigrants — was never really what separated the two sides. In fact, that top priority of activists may have only been legislatively derailed, leading activists to turn to the president, because Democratic politicians were so insistent on getting more — a path to citizenship, and those ever so valuable votes.
The celebrations among immigrants and activists alike, though misguided, are not surprising. Story after story has been published describing how someone’s mother, father, or grandparents were suddenly gone from their homes or never returned from a trip to the grocer because Immigration and Customs Enforcement caught up with them. Activists argued that it is unfair that otherwise law-abiding immigrants should be shipped 2,000 miles away from their families over the equivalent (their view) of a misdemeanor offense. Whether that is fair or unfair is not relevant here, however; this line of argument merely illustrates the point that for many immigrant activists, deportation relief was paramount.
Flash back to the 2013 immigration-reform debate. In most respects, the key controversy regarding the Gang of Eight’s Senate bill was over the “pathway to citizenship” provision. While the inclusion or exclusion of a “pathway” — or even eligibility for citizenship at all — was seen as a deal breaker for both the Republicans and the Democrats, the Latino community saw it differently. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Latinos believe that relief from deportation and being able to work legally are more important than having a pathway to citizenship. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of legal Mexican immigrants have not taken the steps to become citizens. (Mexicans constitute the largest group of legal permanent residents of the United States, as well as accounting for more than half of illegal immigrants.) Taken together, the surveys suggest that taking citizenship eligibility off the table would not have turned off Latino support for a reform bill, and doing so would perhaps have garnered increased GOP support for the legislation, or reform in general. (It would have been interesting to see if Senator Ted Cruz, who proposed an amendment stripping the pathway to citizenship from the Senate bill, would have supported the measure had that and his other amendments passed.)
But that’s not what the Democrats want. They have been using immigration reform as a political football with Latinos for years, and wholeheartedly rejected the idea of taking citizenship off the table. Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D., Ill.), one of the loudest champions for immigration reform, argued that the idea of granting legal residency without citizenship creates a “second class” status. But in reality, it comes down to politics. Take this excerpt from Erika Andiola, a “DREAMer” activist describing a meeting with Representative Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.):
As I walked the halls of Congress looking for support for my mother, I ran into top ranking Democratic Latino leader, Xavier Becerra. My mother asked Congressman Becerra for help and to sign a letter asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement not to deport her. His answer shocked me. Avoiding my mom’s question, he turned and looked me in the eyes, “You need to leave the President alone on deportations.” He turned to my mother, and in Spanish told her that what she needed was a path to citizenship so that one day she can become a voter and vote for the “right party.” [Emphasis added.]
Becerra gave it away. For the Democrats, it’s about votes. It doesn’t matter to them whether most Latinos would be satisfied with simply obtaining legal status or deportation relief. It comes down to using immigrants as pawns for future elections. (As an aside: A similar issue broke down negotiations over the DREAM Act in 2012 — Rubio was building momentum for a proposal, but Democrats didn’t like its lack of a path to citizenship.)
In 2013 there was an avenue for compromise that could have brought forth much-needed changes to our visa system as well as permanent relief for eligible illegal immigrants in the United States.
But thanks to Democratic politics, we are left with a president about to expand an already legally suspect program, further delaying substantive immigration reform and long-term relief for immigrants.
— Samuel A. Rosado is an attorney residing in New Jersey. He served as executive director of the Republican Hispanic Assembly of New Jersey in 2010 and has been a freelance contributor and writer on Hispanic issues and engagement. You can reach him on twitter at @SamARosado.