I realize this is not President Obama’s style, but he is entitled to a “Sister Souljah” moment in his current fight for major immigration reform.
Sister Souljah is an African-American singer who sang about the desirability of anti-white violence.
Speaking at an event in 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton expressed his sharp disagreement with that view. Jesse Jackson angrily rebuked Clinton, accusing him of seeking a way to appeal to the right at the expense of his allies. I often agree with Jackson, but on this point Clinton was absolutely right — morally, intellectually and politically.
Picking unnecessary fights with your friends is a bad idea. Refusing to dissociate yourself from them when they say or do inaccurate and irresponsible things can be worse. For Clinton to have remained silent in that situation would have given ammunition to those who sought to discredit his efforts to further racial fairness. He was under no obligation to lose political support, not just for himself, but for progressive issues generally, because of Souljah’s racist diatribes.
The ongoing, deliberate repeated violations of existing immigration law by young people on the U.S.-Mexican border presents an even greater threat to Obama’s agenda than rhetoric about killing white people did to Clinton’s efforts. Ironically — even infuriatingly — the agenda item these emotionally self-indulgent people is endangering is the excellent work the president is doing to make most of the immigration law changes they support.
Obama is waging a two-pronged fight for a significant shift of immigration policies in the direction of great accommodation of people who’ve come to the U.S. without legal authorization but have otherwise been law-abiding residents.
First, he has ordered the immigration authorities to focus deportation activity on those who have committed other crimes, providing de facto protection to the vast majority of those who remain vulnerable to expulsion. Second, he has been an indispensable part of the legislative push to end that vulnerability by granting them the immediate right to stay, followed by a process that leads to citizenship.
These pro-immigration efforts — which are very much in our national interest — are strongly opposed by most conservative Republicans, and regrettably, by the union of Immigration Enforcement Agents, angry at being ordered to follow policies that combine compassion with good economic sense. The bill that has passed the Senate calls for increased enforcement of the law once it is changed to alleviate the fear that granting legal status to immigrants who are now here without it will encourage millions more to come.
Winning passage of the bill in the Republican-controlled House, with the strong influence of the tea party, will be tough. If the idea that the president will enforce the new safeguards loses credibility, it becomes much tougher. Many Republicans hate the bill because they fear — with good reason — that it will bring millions of additional Democratic voters to the polls when the citizenship rules kick in. But some are seriously concerned about future enforcement. In the Senate, enough Republicans — and some Democrats — were persuaded on this point to give the bill a filibuster-proof majority. The question is whether this can be duplicated in the House.
This is why the flouting of existing law is so damaging. What the people participating in these demonstrations are doing is pressing the president to take exactly the steps that would increase opposition in the House to a bill which, to repeat the central point, would be very much in the interest of those doing the protesting.
One of their tactics is to have people apply for asylum in large numbers to get the right to stay in the country indefinitely without legal status. Nothing could do more to drive away the votes that are needed to pass this bill. Some Republican members will themselves be convinced by this that enforcement will be rendered impossible by these pressures. Others, who would like to vote yes, especially because it is strongly backed by most elements of the business community, face difficulty in doing so because of their conservative constituents. The law-breakers make the job of persuading those voters that this is a good idea even harder.
In the interest of a sensible immigration policy, it is important that the president resist any pressure from this group to condone its publicity-seeking violations of existing immigration law. It is important as well that those who support this effort defend the president when he is unfairly attacked for resisting their inflammatory tactics.
Elected officials too often give themselves credit for bravery for standing up to their opponents. In most cases, being highly critical of those on the other side of an issue can be very helpful. That is especially the case when your attack draws return fire, which most politicians promptly turn into emails soliciting campaign contributions on the grounds that they are under siege.
What is truly hard is to stand up to your allies. That is what people who support genuine immigration reform should be doing in this case. Various interests — business, labor — have compromised to put together a package that is better than many of us thought would have been possible. The spectacle of people who would be major beneficiaries of it engaging in immature and thoughtless tactics that complicate the chances of its passage, is discouraging. Those of us who realize this should do the best we can to counter their potentially damaging impact.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.