It’s no surprise that U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the new speaker of the House, declared that immigration reform is dead during the current Congress. The tea-party faction of his Republican caucus would tear him apart politically if he dared to bring a genuine reform measure to the floor.
But it’s important to set the record straight because the issue is far too important to the future of the country, and it’s not going away just because one party can’t deal with it: Blaming President Obama for the problem, as Mr. Ryan did this week, is a gross distortion of the record.
The president has made mistakes on immigration reform — failing to make it a priority during his first term, for one — but he’s not the one to blame for the prolonged stalemate.
“The president has proven himself untrustworthy on this issue, because he tried to unilaterally rewrite the law himself,” Rep. Ryan said in a televised interview on Sunday, just days after taking the gavel as the new Republican leader in the House.
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Well, yes, the president did issue an executive order to shield some immigrants from deportation after it became obvious that Republicans were simply going to block all efforts at true reform. But consider:
▪ In an effort to show Republicans that he was serious about enforcement, Mr. Obama deported so many illegal immigrants during his first years in office that he was disparaged by immigration advocates as the “Deporter in Chief.” Even so, it got him no immigration cred with his adversaries in the other party.
▪ The Senate actually passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill after Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election with 14 Republican votes.
▪ When that bill moved to the House, Mr. Obama generally stayed quiet in order to give then-Speaker John Boehner room for political maneuver. Yet even with that, House Republicans refused to go along.
Before that collapse, Mr. Boehner had pronounced himself “confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground” to fix immigration. Afterward, he changed his tune. Instead of saying he could work with the administration, he declared that the failure was due to “widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws.”
The president’s executive order — going it alone, as Mr. Ryan said — is tied up in the courts. But the president can’t be blamed for making a last-ditch effort to do something about a pressing national issue after House Republicans rejected a solution. They showed they had absolutely no interest in working toward a bipartisan reform bill to provide relief to undocumented immigrants.
Now the Republicans are stuck with the line that Mr. Obama can’t be trusted. But that doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t square with the record and it doesn’t make the Republican dilemma over immigration reform any easier to resolve. They desperately need to attract Hispanic voters to their cause in 2016, but they’re also stuck with (1) an undeniable legislative record of rejection and (2) a leading presidential contender, Donald Trump, who has promised mass deportations.
That makes it even harder for reasonable members of Mr. Ryan’s party to find a solution and, thus, to attract the votes Republicans need to be the victors next year. The speaker’s story that the president can’t be trusted may play well in his caucus, but it won’t play at all with the voters his party must win over if it is to win the presidency.