Thursday, July 18, 2013

Obama, Amnesty and Immigration

The Editor of this blog had the pleasure to talk with Frank James, of National Public Radio, this afternoon. James, writing for the NPR blog It's All Politics, was interested in the possibility that a formal, presidential amnesty would / could become part of the immigration debate. You can see his blog post here.

Some readers of the post have noted - among other things - that the granting of an amnesty would not amount to an official declaration of citizenship, a power explicitly give to Congress (Article I, Section 8, Clause 4, U.S. Constitution), but also a topic which was never explored in the interview. While observation this is correct, it is also equally obvious that an amnesty could restore the rights of citizenship (as amnesties have done for centuries) or clear the path for millions of people toward that goal. And, of course, neither of those things are small "technical" considerations in the overall debate.

The Editor takes the view that there are three significant contexts to consider, the rhetorical context, the political context and the constitutional context. In the first context, it seems fairly obvious that critics have succeeded in attaching a pejorative meaning to the word "amnesty," at least in most conversations. They certainly wield the word in a manner that suggests that they think that, if it somehow sticks, it will demolish whatever it is attached to, at least in the eyes of the public. This may be the result of polling data / focus group research, or merely an extension of the negative connotations that pardons so easily acquire. On the other side of the beating, one very often hears statements that begin with, "This is not amnesty ..." And, what follows is generally greeted with great disdain and/or skepticism. That says a lot!

Politically, a formal, presidential amnesty would clearly have a disruptive, unilateral feel that would anger many members of Congress, even some of the most loyal members of the President's party. As individuals, members of Congress enjoy credit claiming. As members of Congress, they are jealous of the institutional powers of their branch, and their specific chamber (House or Senate). They are also protective of prestige and significance attached to those powers.

Nothing could come over as more condescending, insulting and divisive than the President hovering the threat of amnesty over the head of Congress. On the other hand, no one can deny that the second term has brought its share of predictions that the President will act even more unilaterally than he did during first four years in office. And, while the granting of an amnesty would bring its share of political risk / backlash, it also seems quite plausible that the President could successful convince many (or enough!) that, in granting amnesty, he simply had to do what a polarized and unpopular Congress was incapable of doing. That is to say, the President could frame amnesty as the consequence of persistent, inexcusable Congressional failure.

The most difficult sell in history? We think not.

In sum, amnesty is a hot potato for everyone. It is very far from clear that Congress is coming over as a knight in shining armor, whose success is inevitable. If the president chooses to lead from behind, or at least appear to stand to the side, and let Congress do what it seems to want to do, what it appears it needs to do ... that seems reasonable enough. But, if the President chooses to use his constitutional power, to lead, the political catastrophes predicted by critics are far from certain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I understand the president can grant a pardon for pretty much any federal offense, I don't see your logic in assuming that the pardon power applies in an ongoing fashion for an ongoing offense. If I'm standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue jaywalking and the president pardons me, I may be free and clear of any jaywalking that morning, but I'm still in the middle of the roadway and still jaywalking and immediately now guilty again.

So while the president might say, "ok, you're pardoned for being here illegally before today", that doesn't make my stay tomorrow legal. It continues to be illegal. Pardons don't make actions legal, they merely make actions forgiven.

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