Washington Kicks the Can Down the Road; States Take the Lead

President’s Decision to Delay Executive Action Creates Electoral Challenges

In early September, the President announced he would delay any executive action that would mitigate the failure of Congress to enact immigration reform, providing relief for families being split apart by deportation. The rationale given by the President was that the Central American child refugee crisis has affected the timeline for an announcement on executive action. Mr. Obama told NBC on September 6,

“I want to spend some time, even as we’re getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action… (and) make sure that the public understands why we’re doing this, why it’s the right thing for the American people, why it’s the right thing for the American economy,” Mr. Obama said.

Democratic Senators Urge Obama to Hold Off

Leading up to the decision to spend more time making sure the American people understand why executive action is needed, several Democratic incumbent senators and senatorial candidates in Republican-leaning states—among them Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Michelle Nunn of Georgia and Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky—had been urging the president to hold off on taking action. They feared such a move would harm their electoral chances. In those states, the Latino electorate is small. The only state where there is a competitive Senate race this year and a significant pool of Latino voters is Colorado. Democratic senators Bill Nelson of Florida, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Independent Angus King of Maine (who caucuses with Democrats) also expressed concerns.

Complicating matters is a turn in public opinion on immigration since the Central American refugee crisis began, with an uptick in the percentage of Americans favoring a focus on border security.

So, regardless of the American people’s understanding of the need for executive action, the political calculation weighed against action prior to the election.

Attacks on “Executive Amnesty” Continue

It’s hard to see how the decision to delay executive action will stave off Republican attacks on immigration. In reaction to the president’s announcement, House Speaker John Boehner released a statement saying that “the decision to simply delay this … unilateral action until after the election – instead of abandoning the idea altogether – smacks of raw politics.” Republican senatorial candidates, as well as the Republican Senatorial Committee, continue to attack Democrats for supporting Obama’s “executive amnesty.” (See, for example, this political attack ad created by the “Kentucky Opportunity Coalition,” a group supporting Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. The add features a shot of “illegal immigrants” climbing the fence—the sort of imagery that was used to promote California’s Prop 187 and inflame the Latino population, which flocked to the Democratic Party over the next several years, dramatically changing California’s political landscape.) Republicans are preparing their options, should Obama act after the elections.

Advocates Angered; Latinos Disillusioned

After promising in June that he would receive his team’s recommendations for executive action by the end of the summer and would act “without further delay,” the president’s decision to further delay action angered advocates.

The delay also risks alienating Latino voters, and media reports indicate that, while groups normally engaged in voter registration drives among Latino eligible voters are urging Latinos to flex their electoral muscle, they are having difficulty generating interest. Obama’s approval ratings among Latinos, already declining prior to his announcement, have diminished further. Latinos surveyed by Latino Decisions in June said they would be less enthusiastic about voting if the president did not take executive action on immigration.

Most of the states where Senate seats are in play are Republican-leaning with relatively few Latinos. Still, with races tightening in several states, it will be interesting to see whether Latinos set aside their disappointment with Democrats, turn out to vote, and make a difference in one or more states.

It Doesn’t Get Easier

Speaking at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual gala on October 2, President Obama said he will act between the mid-term elections and the end of the year. For a variety of reasons, however, including an upcoming budget battle (see below) and the possibility that the upcoming elections will deliver the Senate to Republicans, an announcement of executive action on immigration post-election may be no easier.

Should Republicans gain control of the Senate, we can expect that any immigration legislation that might be drafted in 2015 will focus on boosting border security as well as increasing immigration enforcement in the interior.

More Positive News from the States

With the prospects of a national solution to fixing the immigration system being kicked to a future congress, states continue to take the lead in accommodating their immigrant population.

Number of Jurisdictions Refusing to Honor Immigration Detainers Grows

The number of counties that are deciding not to honor ICE immigration detainers except in limited circumstances continues to grow. In recent weeks, news reports have noted that (among others) 22 Iowa counties are now refusing immigration holds without a court order.  Officials in Douglas County, Nebraska (which includes the state’s largest city, Omaha), have decided they will no longer honor ICE holds. On October 7, Montgomery County, Maryland, officials said they wold no longer honor ICE immigration hold requests unless the agency can demonstrate the person has likely committed a crime.

A series of federal court rulings have held that immigration holds are not mandatory and local jurisdictions cannot be compelled to honor them. Honoring the holds amounts to an unconstitutional deprivation of a person’s liberty without a showing of probable cause that the person has committed a crime. Since these rulings, the number of local law enforcement agencies that have decided not to honor ICE holds now tops 225.

Welcoming Cities

More cities are taking steps to attract immigrants and to be more welcoming to new Americans:

  • In mid September, Detroit became the 41st city to participate in the Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative. The city’s efforts to attract immigrants compliments other efforts undertaken by states and cities in the Midwest.
  • On September 17, the Mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, released a report compiled by the city’s New Americans Task Force, with recommendations for attracting immigrants to the city. The Mayor is seeking to attract 10,000 new families to the city over the next decade, and making the city more attractive to immigrants will help achieve that goal. The report contains 32 recommendations on economic growth and community well-being.
  • In Atlanta, also on September 17, Mayor Kasim Reed committed to implementing 20 recommendations proposed by the city’s Welcoming Atlanta Working Group. The recommendations focus on community engagement, “developing and harnessing talent” and public safety.
  • Also on September 17, the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago launched an initiative called “Cities for Citizenship.” The intent of the initiative is to help immigrants become citizens by expanding naturalization programs and taking other steps to reduce barriers to naturalization—by, for example, offering micro-loans to help cover the cost of the naturalization application. In conjunction with the launch of the initiative, a new report was released calculating the economic benefits accrued in the three cities once immigrants become citizens.
  • On September 22, the City of Nashville, Tennessee, created a Mayor’s Office of New Americans, which will focus on “involving immigrants in local government, expanding economic and educational opportunities and creating partnerships” between the city and community organizations.

While no substitute for federal efforts to reform immigration laws, the actions being taken by cities and states do have an impact, and they will grow, with or without congressional action.

This article was originally written for the National Immigration Forum, and a version appeared in the Forum’s Immigration Policy Update of October 2014.