If a lame duck wants to defy the sharks in the water, it had better learn to fly. Unless it happens to be US President Barack Obama. Reduced to the metaphorical equivalent of a crippled water fowl after a sound drubbing at the mid-term elections, Obama did one better: he threw the Republicans, the sharks in the analogy, a poisoned bait weighted with executive “amnesty” to 5 million illegal immigrants. And watched as the sharks scattered in confusion.
Immigration has been a toxic issue in US politics, roughly paralleling the Mandal quota recommendations in India: everybody knew something had to be done but no one wanted to do it. And like VP Singh in India, it took a weakened leader with nothing to lose to push it through. Unlike the hapless Singh, though, Obama is nothing if not glib.
The glibness was in evidence when the president made the announcement in a 15-minute speech from the White House on 20 November, just a fortnight after Republicans gained control over both Houses of Congress and swept 31 governorships across the country.
In a deeply religious nation that prides itself on nourishing Christian virtues such as charity and compassion, he cited the Bible on the need to embrace “strangers”: “We shall not oppress a stranger for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”
While the action sent Republican leaders and commentators into paroxysms of rage, it quickly became clear that they had few good options to get back at the president. Talk of impeachment or government shutdown would only play into Obama’s hands by making him the victim. It would also turn public opinion against an already unpopular Congress.
Obama himself seemed to be revelling in the role of an “insurgent president”, beaming with satisfaction during a friendly interview on 23 November. He dared the Republicans — who accused him of acting like an emperor — to pass legislation to replace his executive measure. “Well, my response is: pass a Bill,” Obama said reprovingly, later adding “…ultimately, the Congress has a responsibility to deal with these issues.”
Ironically, Obama’s action did not solve the immigration question. Far from it. It actually worsened it by complicating the politics of it. It also did little to solve the real need for easing rules for hi-tech workers in the Silicon Valley, the one place where jobs are too many.
Two minor visa initiatives for highly skilled workers he announced will together add about 147,000 people to the workforce in 10 years, according to a White House estimate — a drop in the bucket of demand for software professionals and computer engineers.
When Obama was first elected in 2008, his party held majorities in both Houses of Congress. But the Democrats lost the Lower House in 2010, which Republicans then used to block an immigration Bill passed by Obama’s party in the Senate, or the Upper House. They also “shut down” the government by refusing to fund it unless the budget deficit was trimmed, temporarily closing down all but emergency federal services.
So, here’s how Obama sees it: he had no choice but to use executive action because the Congress was deadlocked. Action on immigration was a campaign promise made to legal Hispanic or Spanish-speaking voters, his staunchest supporters after blacks. Reasonable? Perhaps, in the ordinarily cynical world of political calculation.
But that does not mean acceptable if it goes against the grain of the latest expression of the “popular will of the American people”, a phrase that sounds like it should be underlined or capitalised when it is used by politicians — often, several times a day. It has generally been sacrosanct in American politics, next to individual liberty and state’s rights.
According to this classical view, Obama’s executive action would have been more palatable if it had come before the 4 November mid-term elections because the verdict rejected his policies.
Admittedly, this view is more true of Republicans, who tend to be more constitutionalist, than Democrats but is ubiquitous enough to qualify as an all-American sentiment. This is because the framers of the American constitution designed it to avoid vesting too much power in the executive. The Houses of Congress serve to take the pulse of the people and check the executive.
Procedurally, the Congress alone has the power to pass legislation: the president has the authority to veto Bills but cannot pass laws on his own. He can use executive authority only to direct law enforcement authorities to use “prosecutorial discretion” while enforcing laws.
Politicians of all stripes agree that “something needs to be done” about the 12 million people living illegally in the US. And they also agree that all cannot be deported because some were brought as infants and know no other country. Anyway, the government does not “have the resources” to do so. Besides, the US is a country of immigrants.
There is also broad agreement about at least one part of the solution: sealing the borders. The Hispanics are generally thought to take low-paying jobs away from the blacks but are seen as part of the social fabric in western states, where they are concentrated. Views sharply diverge about what needs to be done about those already here.
Some politicians want them put on a “path to citizenship” after they learn English and pay fines. Others want a large number deported while allowing the rest to live on legally without a path to citizenship. Yet others just evade the question. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney infamously talked about “self-deportation” during his campaign, an oxymoron that earned him wide ridicule.
Surveys have found that Americans support legalisation by a large majority. A Pew survey conducted in October found that about 71 percent support a pathway for granting legal status to illegal immigrants if certain requirements are met. Less than half say they should be able to apply for citizenship. Overall, 80 percent of Democrats favour legalisation while only 57 percent of Republicans do.
Of the 12 million, most are from Central American countries down the southern border such as Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. There are also an estimated 200,000 Indians living illegally in the US.
Elections do matter, despite Obama’s attempt to pretend they don’t. On 25 November, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel resigned after rumours of differences with Obama’s national security team, at least partly as a result of the disenchantment with Obama so forcefully expressed by the verdict.
White House officials claimed Hagel was fired, but this may not be the whole truth. A former Republican senator, Hagel has long been vocal about the danger the Islamic State poses. It is a view the Obama security team likes to downplay.
On the same day as Hagel’s resignation, the race issue exploded in dramatic fashion as a pre-trial hearing concluded that there was no case against a white policeman who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August.
There were riots in Ferguson, the small town where the shooting happened. Protesters who gathered to await the decision rampaged through a market district. At least 150 shots were fired and 12 buildings set ablaze before the situation quieted.
Obama, who spoke eloquently about race relations during a pivotal part of his campaign for presidency, has not addressed the issue at all during the six years he has been in office. So far, the black community has stayed solidly behind their most illustrious “brother”.
After another shooting of a black teenager in Florida by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in 2012, Obama had said the boy “could have been my son” but made no other comments when the man was found innocent.
Ferguson could be different. The passions are more raw, and after six years under a “post-racial” black president, nothing much has changed for ordinary black people.
Obama has failed to be the transformational president he promised to be for all of America. For black America, simply being there has been enough. He could not fail if he tried. Until now. Because the blacks need him now.
(The views expressed are the author’s own)