Immigration Reform: You do it…So I Don’t Have To…Really.

The US Senate is currently considering immigration reform, with a bipartisan group of Senators working toward a compromise on one of the higher profile post-election issues. At the same time, the Obama Administration has been preparing its own plan, which was leaked by USA Today.  President Obama called on Congress to address the issue in his State of the Union address, and reaction was generally positive from both sides of the aisle.

The strategic situation here is a classic, but nonetheless interesting one.  Immigration reform is seen as necessary by both parties.  The devil is in the details.  President Obama’s gambit here is to present both Democrats and Republicans in Congress with a “way out.”  For example, he is speaking in generalities about reform, encouraging the notion that there is a bipartisan consensus on the broad strokes of reform, and stating that he will sign a bill if given one by Congress. These strategies allow Obama to not take a position and also allow/require Congress to construct a policy that can cover enough members’ interests to secure passage.  It is notable in this regard that reform is “starting” in the Senate—this highlights the cross-cutting nature of immigration reform.  On the one hand, it is always tough to get 60 votes.  Starting the process in the Senate suggests that securing the votes is seen as “doable” by some, if not all, Senators.

At the same time, members of the Obama Administration are making clear that that the President will present his own legislation if Congress does not act quickly.  In addition, House Democrats are publicly claiming that President Obama can act unilaterally in meaningful ways. For example, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) is quoted as saying that, with respect to immigration reform, Obama is “not just beating the drum … he’s actually the drum major.”

Obama may or may not have the stomach to make (further) significant unilateral moves on immigration.  But making the argument that he does increases the bargaining power of Democrats in Congress.  In particular, if Obama does proceed unilaterally on immigration, the pretense of bipartisanship is much less valuable to him.  Accordingly, Republican members of Congress who seek a say in the details of reforms must envision a tough road securing those details in a unilateral Obama-led administrative/prosecutorial immigration reform push.

In a nutshell, then, Obama’s language can be read as “I don’t have any reason to not yield on many possible specific points/details of this reform.  I also don’t have any reason to fight for them.  You put in the effort, you get the discretion.”  This gambit is possible precisely because of the cross-cutting nature of immigration reform: many of the details are themselves not partisan “per se.”  This gambit is valuable to Obama for exactly the same reason: any reforms he implements through unilateral action can–unlike statutory reform–be undone with the stroke of a pen by his successor.  That, regardless of your party, isn’t real reform at all.

With that, I leave you with this.