Blame Rahm for Immigration Inaction?


Despite his harsh rebuke of Arizona’s new immigration law, President Obama has made it clear that he won’t push for reform this year, citing a lack of “appetite” in Congress. Frustrated by the inaction, pro-reform lawmakers and advocates have pointed the finger at one White House official: chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Immigration advocates have long seen Emanuel as their nemesis. He’s often cautioned that the issue was politically treacherous, particularly for centrist and moderate Democrats. And reformers are blaming him for the current hold-up, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“There’s always a sense that no matter how hard we work, to get through the White House, we have to get through Rahm,” said U.S. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “I would like immigration not to be part of the chief of staff’s portfolio. It would make our ability to convince and access decision-makers in the White House a lot easier.”

As a top aide to former President Bill Clinton, he stressed the message that Clinton was hard-nosed about policing illegal immigration. Later, as a Chicago congressman who took on the assignment of installing more Democrats in the House, Emanuel cautioned that immigration was the “third rail of American politics,” dangerous to those who touch it.

Now, as Obama’s top aide, Emanuel has argued much the same thing in private meetings…Democratic lawmakers and advocates who have clashed with Emanuel over the years fear that immigration is destined to be a second-tier priority as long as he is in his current role.

Given Emanuel’s track record and political modus operandi, I don’t doubt that he’d be the first to warn Obama about the political risks of pursuing immigration reform this year. Early on, he had warned that an overhaul would have to wait until Obama’s second term, should he be re-elected.

But blaming Rahm for the hold-up overestimates his role in setting Obama’s agenda. When it came to health care, for instance, both Emanuel and Vice-President Joe Biden had urged Obama to abandon a comprehensive reform effort, convinced that the issue would be too politically perilous, as The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn explains in his authoritative inside account. Chief counselor David Axelrod had similar warnings about the political fallout. But Obama himself decided that he would press ahead with health care, having decided that the debate was “a proxy for the deepest, most systemic crises facing the country,” Cohn writes.

Having Rahm in the White House bending the president’s ear certainly doesn’t make life any easier for immigration advocates. But Emanuel is an easy punching bag for frustrated liberals, and blaming him for the immigration delay effectively gives the president himself a free pass.

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  • Suzy Khimm was a reporter in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones from March 2010 until June 2011. For more of her stories, click here. Follow her on Twitter here.