Making his first rounds of Sunday talk shows over the weekend, newly anointed U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan dropped this little bombshell: There will be no movement on immigration in the coming year because he finds President Obama “untrustworthy” on the issue.
This stands in stark contrast to Ryan’s statements just five days ago, when he said, upon assuming his new role, that Republicans and Democrats should “pray for a deeper understanding” of one another and work together as representatives of the American people rather than as partisans.
Apparently that understanding and cooperation does not extend to the president of the United States.
At the heart of Ryan’s objections: Obama, confronted with continued inaction on immigration reform, last year resorted to a tool employed by two of the last three presidents. He issued executive orders that would protect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation — mostly parents of legal U.S. citizens and those who have lived here at least five years.
Congressional Republicans have been in a fury ever since, accusing Obama of overreach for straying well beyond the legal authority of a president.
Little mention has been made of the fact that President Ronald Reagan used his executive powers to protect minor children from deportation in 1987. Congress the year before had passed sweeping immigration reform that included amnesty, but some family members had failed to qualify. Faced with the breakup of families, Reagan issued the order.
Similarly, President George H.W. Bush in 1990 granted deportation protection to 1.5 million spouses and children of those legalized under amnesty. His executive order covered about 40 percent of the then-undocumented population. Obama’s executive order covers about the same percentage, which today is just under 5 million. No Republicans accused Reagan or Bush of overstepping their authority or declared either untrustworthy.
The immigration issue reliably motivates about half of the Republican base — those who favor mass deportation of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. It has helped catapult billionaire businessman Donald Trump to the top of the GOP presidential field. So incendiary do the feelings run that Sen. Marco Rubio, who earlier promoted a balanced plan that combined tighter border security with a path to citizenship, has renounced all but the emphasis on border control.
A cynical person might believe that Ryan’s ultimate goal is to preserve immigration as a galvanizing election issue while neatly sidestepping any messy negotiations that might bring his side in line for rebukes from the right.
Just last month the Star Tribune Editorial Board praised Ryan for his collegiality and ability to respectfully hear out policy differences. Those are the qualities he needs to bring to bear now. The speaker should honor his earlier instincts on cooperation and understanding and strive to make good use of the year that lies ahead.