Immigration Reform 2013: Obama Just Doesn't Have Time for Serious Reform

President Obama has said that one of his goals is immigration reform. While I agree that this is a good second-term project for him — our immigration laws are unnecessarily complicated and unsuited to the realities of 21st-century life — I doubt sincerely that he can carry it off.

Consider the events of his first term. His major accomplishment was the ACA, or “Obamacare," but he had to put in months of deal-making to push it through Congress, then watch as it was challenged in the courts. Health care, as everyone knows, is a matter of broad concern. Almost every American will need some at some point, and except for “the 1%,” very few can pay for it out of their own pockets.  Congress certainly knew this, as did the various state attorney generals who mounted the legal challenges, yet they didn't bother to get behind the president in his efforts to address a genuine need and concern of their constituents.

Then came the “fiscal cliff.” It was on everybody's lips for months. Taxes and federal expenditures (particularly entitlements, unemployment assistance, and means-tested programs) are likewise matters for broad concern. Almost everyone pays taxes (even if they get refunds in the end), and nearly half the households in this country receive some kind of federal money, from Social Security on down. In difficult economic times such as we have currently, the percentage goes up, if temporarily, as people file for unemployment and SNAP to keep them going. Yet, once again, obstructionists in Congress (chiefly conservative Republicans) ignored the concerns of the people they're supposedly elected to serve, and dug in their heels until almost the very last possible second. The stopgap bill wasn't passed until literally “the eleventh hour.”

As I've observed, health care, taxes, and government expenditures touch every American household. Illegal immigration doesn't — or at least, we don't think of it in those terms.  Most of us, except perhaps along the Mexican border and in certain of our largest cities, will never encounter an illegal alien, or certainly not one who admits to being so.Moreover, illegals, unlike (some of) the rest of us, don't vote. Why would Congress ignore the concerns of citizens, yet trouble itself over the condition of people who aren't even Americans?

Of course, the fact is that immigration does touch us. If it weren't for the illegals doing stoop labor in the fields, our food costs would skyrocket. But how many of us ever see stoop laborers at work? They're invisible, covered by that well-known maxim, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

The president has managed, in his first term, to outmaneuver his opposition on one measure and outstare them on another. Though I applaud his persistence (while not necessarily agreeing with every part of what he did), I know human nature and I'm a cynic. People who are whipped and humiliated once — not to mention twice — are going to be just that more resolved not to let it happen again. 

The election returns show that in the 113th Congress, the Senate will be dominated by Democrats (54-45), but the House will still be held by Republicans (201-234). And, as we've already seen, the ultraconservatives who have hijacked control of the Republican party simply don't know when to choose their fights or admit they should back off. Even as I write, MSN.com observes that 90% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, but Congress is so accustomed to being the scapegoat that it doesn't care.

It's true, of course, that Obama need no longer concern himself over walking tightropes long enough to build up re-election credit. But that doesn't make him exempt from the way things get done in Washington. He's still going to have to deal with Republican obduracy and try to build up enough support to overcome it. 

At a time when the president has yet to fix the budget and get it permanently on keel, to say nothing of trying to improve the jobs picture (think “the infrastructure”), deal with international concerns, and end the recession, can he summon the time and energy to help the illegals? I don't think so. Some of the electorate may have seen him as the Great New Hope, but he's only one mortal man, with 16 hours a day and four years of days left to him to carry out his projects. He's going to have to pick his battles, if not on the basis of personal practicality, at least according to what most Americans care about, just as he did with health care and the fiscal cliff.