White House Dials It Down on Immigration

Reid J. Epstein, Politico, January 21, 2014

The White House is trying to dial down the partisan rhetoric on immigration—and it’s asking its allies to do the same.

In meetings with immigration reform advocates, White House officials have said President Barack Obama won’t threaten to take unilateral executive action—at least not yet—and that he wants to give House Republicans some breathing room to try to pass legislation this year, said immigration advocates who have participated in the sessions.

While Obama is blaming Republicans for blocking the rest of his domestic agenda, and congressional Democrats see immigration as a winning 2014 issue for them if Republicans are seen as the boogeymen responsible for blocking reform efforts, activists in touch with the White House said Obama won’t use his bully pulpit to embarrass or chasten the GOP on immigration. That includes Obama’s State of the Union address next Tuesday.

“You’re not going to see the president talking critically or negatively about Republicans on an issue like this when he wants to see this happen,” said Jim Wallis, president of the Christian social-justice organization Sojourners. “They’re not looking for conflict here, they are looking for cooperation and collaboration.”

The president has softened his language of late. He went from demanding the House pass the Senate’s comprehensive bill to saying at a pre-Christmas news conference that it was “a concept that has bipartisan support. Let’s see if we can break through the politics on this.” Before a Cabinet meeting last week, Obama issued a vanilla reminder that “we know that we need to get immigration reform done—a major piece of unfinished business from last year.” Obama also discussed immigration reform during his Wednesday night session with Senate Democrats, according to the White House.

“I’m not getting the sense that they are going to spend half the speech on this,” Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said of the White House. “What we’re looking for in the State of the Union is quality and not quantity.”

A White House official declined to discuss the details of the State of the Union address but said Obama will give House Republicans time and space to reach an immigration solution. “We’re focused more on the result and less about the process,” the official said. “If they have to jump through a series of hoops, we’re happy to let the House work its will.”

House Republicans have pledged to issue long-awaited principles on immigration in the coming weeks that would lay out their alternative to the comprehensive reform bill the Senate passed in June. A key sticking point between the forthcoming House GOP principles and the White House and immigration reformers will be placing undocumented immigrants on a path to legal status, rather than citizenship, according to people briefed on the discussions.


At last week’s Cabinet meeting, Obama kicked his all-by-myself theme into high gear, saying 2014 would be a year of executive actions and orders to advance his agenda wherever he can.

“We are not just going to be waiting for a legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need,” Obama said. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone—and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.”


Just because immigration-minded groups are not hammering Republicans now does not mean they are disarming. The National Council of La Raza on Thursday is launching an effort to register 250,000 Latino voters in states “where there is potential to advance the national dialogue on issues important to Latinos, such as immigration reform,” the group said Monday.

Obama’s GOP allies on immigration reform are gearing up for their own campaign to back House action. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was once a Republican, is hosting an immigration forum Friday in Washington with Michigan’s GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, former Bush administration Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Randy Johnson.


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