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Pavlov In Action: Obama, Romney, And Immigration Ping Pong Politics

– Posted in: Immigration Law, Policy & Politics | The Obama Years

immigration-reform-ping-pongI agree with Senator Rubio.

Immigration reform resembles political ping pong.

The game accelerated with the start of the Obama administration.

In March 2010, I wrote a post entitled “Immigration Reform Ping Pong,” which discussed how the hopes of immigrants were being tossed back and forth by Democrats and Republicans as they counted votes.

As an immigration lawyer in Riverside, it’s a question I hear almost every day.

“Do you think,” ask clients, “we’ll have immigration reform this year?”

It’s a tough question.

Immigration reform resembles a ping pong match.


According to the Los Angeles Times, the President met yesterday with two senators, Democrat Charles Schumer and Republican Lindsey Graham, whose support are crucial to immigration reform. Presumably, the purpose was to ask them to hasten a blueprint.


Just a month ago, immigration reform seemed dead. After Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election, Newsweek’s blog, The Gaggle, reported the chances of having an immigration reform bill had become dramatically slimmer.

Obama’s State of the Union Speech also contributed to the pessimistic outlook of pro-reform leaders. Many observers felt his reluctance to address immigration reform was tantamount to abandonment.

Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, head of the largest U.S. Hispanic Christian organization, labeled Obama’s 38-word commentary “a crumb” to satisfy the hunger of immigrant communities. He added it marked the death knell of immigration reform in 2010.


The disillusionment articulated by Rodriguez was a stark contrast to sentiments last fall.

In November, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano stated the Obama Administration would push for immigration reform in 2010.

Shortly afterwards, Congressman Louis Gutierrez introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act (CIR ASAP) Act of 2009.

Pro-immigrant leaders expressed optimism about the prospects of immigration reform.


Prior to these gestures, despite Obama’s bold campaign promises, immigration reform languished for several months after his victory.

At a populist pit stop in my neck of the woods last spring, the president was taken aback when posed a question about immigration reform. The question was not surprising for a Southern California audience. Yet, Obama’s response resembled a rookie batter swinging at one of Josh Beckett’s curveballs.

And The Winner Is . . . 

The president understands the volatility of reform. He has tried to appease both sides of the immigration equation.

However, with midterm elections around the corner, the issue is reaching a boiling point.

Very soon, the administration will have to fish or cut bait.

The Democratic Solution: Counting Votes

Before joining the bar, I spent several years working in political offices.

I learned the art of counting votes. Before diving in too deeply.

Given the uncertain political climate in a midterm election year, my guess is the president will take a middle-of-the-road approach.

He cannot go too far in promoting pro-immigration legislation or he’ll lose the support of many moderates.

On the other hand, as Politico’s Ben Smith points out, Obama must push some of his campaign promises to maintain the enthusiasm of immigrant communities which strongly voted for his party two years ago.

My hunch is that one or two “safer” pieces of the pro-immigrant agenda will be taken up in the spring or early summer.

But like I tell my clients, don’t bet the house on it.

Nearly 2 1/2 years later, not much has changed.

Except that comprehensive immigration reform is missing in action.

A halfhearted effort to halt the deportations of some deserving and hard-working immigrants – deportations which are a nightmare, not a DREAM – is the sole bone being fed to the public.

And the reprieve is only temporary.

While Democrats and Republicans, Obama and Romney continue to play ping pong with immigration, the lives of immigrant families are destroyed by flawed policies and defunct processes.

Immigration Ping Pong 2012

Just last week, in a speech before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Rubio, a U.S. Senator from Florida, noted, “As long as this issue of immigration is a political ping pong that each side uses to win elections and influence votes, I’m telling you, it won’t get solved.”

There are those on both the Democratic and GOP sides who want the immigration issue to not get solved, he added, because they can keep exploiting it for electoral gain.

Although candid, Rubio is not immune from the same criticism.


The latest round of immigration reform ping pong began with the announcement that Rubio was crafting a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act.

Under the Rubio plan, it was rumored young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. with their parents would be allowed to apply for non-immigrant visas. If granted, they could remain in the country to study or work and obtain a driver’s license. Later, they could apply for legal residency, but they would not be given a special path to citizenship.

Several months later, the Rubio proposal had still not been released. The reason for his delay is unknown.

Elected as a Tea Party darling, it’s highly likely he was trying to appease his hard line immigration restrictionist supporters by defining tight proposal parameters. In doing so, he was indirectly, if not directly, counting votes for his party.

In late May, a Florida colleague, Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, held a press conference and laid out an alternative to the DREAM Act.

Rivera’s proposal, called the Studying Towards Adjusted Residency Status Act, was a follow up to his earlier legislation which would allow young, undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. if they served in the military.

The STARS Act, Rivera explained, would allow undocumented immigrants who (a) are 19 or younger, or are 21 or younger and have been granted voluntary departure, (b) arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and (c) have maintained residence in the United States for at least the previous five consecutive years, the opportunity to adjust their residency status if they achieve a degree from an accredited four year institution of higher education and meet certain other criteria.

Rivera’s announcement was unexpected in most political circles. Whether his proposal was intended as a trial balloon for Rubio to gauge public reaction or to steal Rubio’s thunder remains a mystery.


These actions raised the stakes for Obama.

The president, as syndicated news columnist Ruben Navarrette explained, had to do something to convince Latinos that he is still on their side.

Since Obama has been in office, his administration has deported immigrants in record-breaking numbers each year, totaling more than 1.2 million people. Content with playing immigration ping pong, Obama has neither stood firm nor come close to fulfilling his 2008 campaign promises. As a result, his support has dwindled in Latino and immigrant communities.

Thus, after several years of reluctance, Obama finally announced his administration would stop deporting young undocumented immigrants who had entered the United States as children and begin granting work permits to them. Under this program, prosecutorial discretion is allowed in two year increments and would be renewable.

To qualify, applicants must prove they (1) were brought to the United States before they turned 16, (b) are 30 or younger, (3) have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, (4) attend or have graduated from high school, obtained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the military, and (5) have no significant criminal record and pose not threat to national security.

Like the Rubio and Rivera plans, the Obama proposal did not provide a pathway to citizenship.


Nonetheless, his policy shift accomplished its primary mission.

It boxed his opponent, Mitt Romney, into a political corner.

During the primaries, hoping to placate the anti-immigration base of his party, Romney focused on border security and said he would veto the DREAM Act. He aligned himself with self-deportation, the idea of making it difficult for undocumented immigrants to live in the United States. If he staked out a position favoring a path to legalization, he risked alienating them.

Yet, without supporting affirmative immigration reform measures, Romney would throw away any chance he had of attracting Latino voters in November.

Caught in a Catch-22, Romney sought out a middle ground.

He said that he would overhaul the green card system, advocate for increases in immigration caps, revise the temporary worker visa system, and provide permanent residency for undocumented immigrant youth who graduate from college.

At the same time, he noted the need to beef up border security and build a high tech border fence.

Pavlovian Victims At The Polls

As an immigration attorney, I was glad to learn the Obama administration would grant deferred action for DREAM Act candidates.

The DREAM Act battle has been ongoing for many years. As time passed, more and more DREAMers were getting deported.

I had no doubts the fine print would carry restrictions.

At least the issue of immigration reform had been taken out of the president’s closet and put on the table for the public to talk about and debate. In my view, this is a step forward.

Despite his hodgepodge approach, Romney also pushed the debate forward, raising a different set of issues necessary for comprehensive immigration reform.

But talk, standing alone, is cheap.

Clearly, each side is attempting to craft an appeal to Latino and immigrant voters who may hold the key to success in November.

This is hardly a surprise.

The problem, for immigrant families and their supporters, is gauging sincerity.

Given their dismal track records, who can be trusted?

Yet, many immigration reform supporters act like starving pets who have been waiting for their masters to feed them, however little, however late.

Some still want to cling to the old-fashioned notion of one party blame for immigration ills

.For them, these small steps are sufficient to overlook the political ping pong actions (and immigration reform inaction) over the past 3 ½ years.

They fail to realize the effect of increasing deportations is like rising gas prices. After the price of gas goes up from $3.50 to $4.50 per gallon for several months, the public is elated by the drop back to $4.00 per gallon.

Similarly, after record-breaking deportation totals for several years, immigration reform advocates think a temporary halt to the deportation of some immigrant youth is a bargain.

They ignore the role of both parties in dealing the broken deck of immigration reform cards presented to immigrant families.

The Political Journey Ahead

At the NALEO Conference, Rubio speculated that “we are as close as we’ve ever been to a critical turning point in the debate about immigration.”

He might be right.

It’s unlikely legislative change will take place this year. Neither of the two main parties is willing to promote immigration reform inside Congress just weeks away from Election Day.

Moreover, it’s unlikely the Democrats, Republicans, Obama, or Romney have the stomach – much less the heart – to fight for true immigration reform.

So, then, why might the day of reform be nearer?

Because the parties fear the political independence of Latinos and immigrant communities.

Independence forces both Democrats and Republicans alike to address immigrant concerns.

As immigration reform advocates, we can compel the next administration to take our issues to the next level if we remain independent.

To accomplish this, we cannot renounce our independence.

Unfortunately, like the subjects of a Pavlovian experiment, as the election nears and the drums of both major parties beat louder, lukewarm independent voters are jumping in line with their party command.

Imitating party loyalists and candidate apologists, they are unwilling to accept that long term immigration success often requires short term sacrifices.

From my perspective, even for those who have decided to support a particular candidate for president already, there is no need for acknowledgment. Keep candidates in doubt. Make them work harder, up to the last day of the election.

The more we close the gap before November, the better off we’ll be after November.

After all, we might be closer, but immigration reform is still a long journey ahead.

By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics