Contrary to popular belief, this shift doesn’t appear to stem from any new executive orders from The One. It comes from a directive issued by Janet Napolitano (at Obama’s behest, of course) instructing DHS to defer action on all young illegals who meet the DREAM-like criteria specified in the directive. That’s why O is insisting that this isn’t amnesty: It’s not formal legalization, it’s de facto legalization insofar as they’re simply not going to enforce the existing law against a certain class of illegal immigrants. It’s prosecutorial discretion, in other words — exercised en masse on behalf of something like 800,000 people. President Romney’s DHS director could reverse it with a single memo, but of course Obama’s calculating that he won’t dare now that the precedent’s been established, especially given all the pressure Romney’s feeling and will continue to feel to be more competitive for Hispanic votes.
When O was asked about this last year, he claimed his hands were tied. Amazing what sorts of “evolution” can happen with Election Day bearing down:
THE PRESIDENT: I just have to continue to say this notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true. We are doing everything we can administratively. But the fact of the matter is there are laws on the books that I have to enforce. And I think there’s been a great disservice done to the cause of getting the DREAM Act passed and getting comprehensive immigration passed by perpetrating the notion that somehow, by myself, I can go and do these things. It’s just not true…
[W]e live in a democracy. You have to pass bills through the legislature, and then I can sign it. And if all the attention is focused away from the legislative process, then that is going to lead to a constant dead-end. We have to recognize how the system works, and then apply pressure to those places where votes can be gotten and, ultimately, we can get this thing solved. And nobody will be a stronger advocate for making that happen than me.
His “rah-rah democracy” approach there is misleading: As Byron York notes, he’s been flirting with the idea of unilateral executive action for a long time. But his basic point, that you’ll need a compromise in Congress to finally settle this issue, is all too true. And Matt Lewis is dead right in thinking that Obama made that much more difficult today:
As someone who opposed the Arizona law — and has supported Rubio’s DREAM ACT — I am convinced that America needs to have a serious national discussion about immigration reform. Short-circuiting the legislative process deprives us of that organic discussion. It also guarantees there will be no bipartisan consensus. Perhaps Rubio could have persuaded more conservatives to back common sense reforms? The water is now poisoned. Obama — for transparently political purposes — has made sure that conservatives and Republicans will feel slighted and kept out of the loop.
That’s because they have been.
The downside, of course, is that this does nothing to heal this nation, nothing to bring us together, and only serves as a short-term solution for immigrants when a long-term solution — one based on consensus, not political opportunism — was needed.
If O actually cared about DREAM on the merits instead of as a cynical electoral cudgel against the GOP, he would have let Rubio float his own DREAM bill to try to shake some Republican support loose. The bill might have passed with Democratic support; even if it didn’t, Obama would have been in a better position at that point to act unilaterally since there would already be multiple Republicans on record as supporting the basics of DREAM (even if they opposed unilateral executive action). But he couldn’t afford to let Rubio take the lead lest the publicity surrounding that jeopardize Obama’s huge lead over the GOP among Latinos. So, just as he did with gay marriage, he cynically decided that now was the moment for a pure, bold, crystalline pander to one of the Democrats’ core client constituencies.
But I don’t know, maybe I’m underestimating him. As I say, now that a de facto DREAM amnesty is in effect, the politics of this have changed. If there’s any tried and true principle in the entitlement age, it’s that most politicians are deathly afraid to take something away from a group once it’s been granted — especially a group whose electoral power is increasing. Will President Romney or a Republican Congress really be willing to undo this when given the chance? At best, I think they might be willing to replace it with a new DREAM Act of their own, but unless there’s a ferocious backlash among the rest of the electorate, I’m skeptical that pulling the plug is an option.
Here’s a chunk of O’s presser. I’ve got updates coming below the video, so stand by.
Update: Daniel Halper at the Standard finds it awfully coincidental that the cover story of Time magazine’s new issue published yesterday is a puff piece on the illegal immigrant experience. I don’t know. Newsweeklies typically don’t need any nudging from the White House to run puff pieces about the “undocumented,” but a well-timed bit of favorable messaging in a major magazine will help Axelrod et al. sell this otherwise controversial policy. Who knows what sorts of little tidbits they’re feeding to journalists about policy shifts to come.
Update: At Reason, Mike Riggs asks a good question. If President Choom can decide that he has better things to do than deport young illegals, why can’t he also decide that he has better things to do than prosecute dope-smokers?
Today’s immigration announcement makes a compelling case that Obama is capable of using his executive powers to *not* enforce the law, and will do so when it’s politically advantageous. There’s a lesson there for drug reformers.