President Obama’s senior campaign adviser David Axelrod pushed back Sunday on Republicans for highlighting the lack of comprehensive immigration reform as a failed Obama promise. The president’s ongoing squabble with the GOP on this issue is indicative of how the two camps are trying to court Hispanic voters ahead of the election.
“To say because you have an implacable group of Republicans in the Congress who simply aren’t to let that move, that the president hasn’t kept his promise, is a little bit disingenuous,” Axelrod said on CNN’s State of the Union. “The president has tried to get [immigration reform], he has initiated those actions. I was in the room when he called together Republicans and Democrats who have been active for immigration reform in the past. … And the president said I will work with you to get this done. Not one of those Republicans was willing to stand up and work with him to pass the bill.”
Hispanic voters are upset that Obama didn’t push harder for immigration reform in his first two years, when he had large Democratic majorities. But they’re more vexed with Republicans, who have used their clout in Congress to thwart multiple efforts by Democrats to advance the cause. Now, heading into a presidential election with a sizable deficit among Hispanic voters, a key part of the GOP’s — and Mitt Romney’s — damage-control strategy is to obscure their own role and instead blame Obama.
“Obama promised pathway [to citizenship] and DREAM Act … and he delivered nothing. He’s not to be trusted,” Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus told reporters recently, saying Obama “either lied or is so grossly negligent in following through on his promises when it comes to immigration.” On the campaign trail, Romney has accused Obama of using the issue of immigration as a “political weapon.”
Other than a handful of speeches and supportive statements, Obama has done little to put pressure on Congress to reform immigration. But the GOP’s argument lacks important context. When the Senate held a December 2010 vote to proceed on DREAM Act — which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented children who attend college or join the military — just 3 Republicans joined 52 Democrats in its favor. The rest of the GOP senators blocked it from getting the 60 votes needed to advance.
Beyond that Democrats, backed by Obama, have offered multiple comprehensive immigration reform bills that include a pathway to citizenship to those in the country illegally. Republicans have repeatedly thwarted those efforts — some say “amnesty” of any kind is off the table, while others have demanded that Obama secure the border before they consider anything.
On that front, Obama has taken a number of steps. He has beefed up border security and deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants. On his watch, border violence has declined and the rate of illegal immigration has fallen.
These steps haven’t placated Republican leaders, who have resisted calls to define specifically what they’d like to see Obama do before they consider comprehensive reform.
As Axelrod put it, “A lot of Republicans in Congress want to cooperate, know better, but they are in the thralls of this reign of terror from the far right.”
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer told TPM that Obama could have done more. “For two years President Obama controlled both houses of Congress and never made immigration reform a priority,” he wrote in an email. “If they want to blame anyone they should start with themselves for failing to follow through on this campaign promise.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), encouraged by Romney, says he’s working on a Republican version of the DREAM Act that offers legal temporary residency to those eligible, but not a pathway to citizenship like the Democrats’ version. It remains a work in progress, but the two are already taking fire from their right flank, an indication of how politically difficult it is for Republicans to support even the most popular immigration proposals.
Meanwhile, Hispanic voters are still waiting for results. And none of this helps convince them why Obama will persuade Republicans to bend in his second term when he was unable to in his first. Under a Romney administration, Republicans would lose a partisan incentive to deny the president an accomplishment. But Romney has forcefully come out against a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and even if he’s tempted to flip, he’ll be reminded that President Bush failed to pass immigration reform under a Republican Congress. All of this suggests that the road to reform remains murky regardless of how the 2012 election turns out.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.