By William McGurn
Sept. 11, 2017 7:05 p.m. ET
Throughout his political life, Barack Obama has been hustling America on immigration, pretending to be one thing while doing another.
Now he’s at it again. Mr. Obama calls it “cruel” of Donald Trump both to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protected hundreds of thousands of people who came to the U.S. as children illegally—and to ask Congress to fix it. The former president further moans that the immigration bill he asked Congress to send him “never came,” with the result that 800,000 young people now find themselves in limbo.
Certainly there are conservatives and Republicans who oppose and fight efforts by Congress to open this country’s doors, as well as to legalize the many millions who crossed into the U.S. unlawfully but have been working peacefully and productively. These immigration opponents get plenty of attention.
What gets almost zero press attention is the sneakier folks, Mr. Obama included. Truth is, no man has done more to poison the possibilities for fixing America’s broken immigration system than our 44th president.
Main Street Columnist Bill McGurn on how the former president has poisoned the immigration reform debate. Photo Credit: Getty Images.
Mr. Obama’s double-dealing begins with his time as junior senator from Illinois, when he helped sabotage a bipartisan immigration package supported by George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy. Mr. Obama’s dissembling continued during the first two years of his own presidency, when he had the votes to pass an immigration bill if he had chosen to push one. It was all topped off by his decision, late in his first term, to institute the policy on DACA that he himself had previously admitted was beyond his constitutional powers.
Let this columnist state at the outset that he favors a generous system of legal immigration because he believes it is good for America. Let him stipulate too that a fair and reasonable solution to 800,000 children who are here through no fault of their own should not be a sticking point for a nation as large as America. But once again, here’s the point about Mr. Obama: For all his big talk about how much he’s wanted an immigration bill, whenever he’s had the opportunity to back one, he’s either declined or actively worked to scuttle it.
Start with 2007, when a coalition of Republican and Democratic senators came up with a bill that also enjoyed the support of the Bush White House. It wasn’t perfect, but it extracted compromises from each side—e.g., enhancements for border security, a guest-worker program, and the inclusion of the entire Dream Act, the legislation for children who’d been brought here illegally that Mr. Obama claims he has always wanted.
Sen. Obama opted to back 11th-hour amendments that Kennedy rightly complained were really intended as deal-breakers. At a critical point, Kennedy urged that President Bush ask then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep the Senate in session to get the last few votes the bill needed. Mr. Reid opted for the Obama approach: Concluding he’d rather have the political issue than actual reform, he adjourned the Senate for the July 4 recess.
A year later Mr. Obama was running for president. Before the National Council of La Raza, he vowed: “I will make [comprehensive immigration reform] a top priority in my first year as president.” Yet notwithstanding the lopsided Democratic majorities he enjoyed in Congress his first two years, he didn’t push for immigration legislation, which makes his promise to La Raza rank right up there with “if you like your health care plan you can keep it.”
Mr. Obama frequently noted the limits on his powers. “I know some here wish that I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that’s not how democracy works,” he said. Then in 2012 he decided he would indeed change the law himself. A June 2012 Journal editorial captures the cynicism built into the DACA memo.
The president’s move, the Journal predicted, “will further poison the debate and make Republicans more reluctant to come to the negotiating table and cut a deal.” The editorial went on: “One begins to wonder if anything this President does is about anything larger than his re-election.”
Today Carl Cannon, executive editor and Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics, is almost alone in the national press in pointing to this history, in a piece pegged to the Democratic response to President Trump’s pitch to codify DACA into law. “Instead of responding to this overture in a spirit of compromise,” Mr. Cannon writes, “Democrats chose vitriol and name-calling, their default position in the Trump era.”
Perhaps, suggests Mr. Cannon, a “certain ex-president” is accusing Mr. Trump of cruelty “to help us forget” that when he and other Democrats “had the chance to grant 11 million immigrants access to the American dream, they instead chose, for partisan purposes, to keep them in the shadows.” Fair enough to criticize Mr. Trump and Congress for whatever they do going forward to clean up this mess. But let’s remember the Obama duplicity that created it.