Immigration Reform 2013: Why It Won't Be Obama's Legacy


With less than half of President Obama's tenure left, the talk of a "legacy" has already begun. Since taking office in 2009 Obama has attempted to change a wide range of federal policy. Many of his initiatives have been stalled by congressional gridlock, an unusually obstructionist Republican opposition, and the president's own timidity, while others were watered down. One of his successes in the first term was the Affordable Care Act, overhauling the American health care system. In his second term, fixing the dysfunctional immigration system has become a priority. Earlier, with the DREAM Act languishing in Congress, Obama took executive action to temporarily allow those who entered without documents as young children to stay.

Now, with many Republicans changing their minds and coming around to support reform, the Senate passed a comprehensive package that includes the DREAM Act, pathway to citizenship, and border security, with the House still not sure about it. David Axelrod called immigration reform a "legacy item." However, while immigration reform does have potential to bring benefits to a large population, whether Obama would be remembered in history for this legacy is less than certain, even if the law succeeds far beyond expectations. Immigration laws change significantly several times, affecting many real lives, but no presidents in history have been known mainly for reforming immigration under their watch. 

Despite the contentious and emotional nature of the debate concerning immigration], it does not seem to be an issue that "makes or breaks" a president's position in history books. One of the most disreputable pieces of immigration legislation with far-reaching impact, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which like its name says disallowed Chinese nationals from entering the U.S. until its repeal in 1943 and barred the Chinese living in U.S. from obtaining citizenship, was a major bill supported and signed by then-President Chester Arthur, along with another bill levying a tax on immigrants and forbidding "convicts, lunatics, idiots" from entrance. While we certainly condemn this law, which would have prevented me from becoming an American, for its blatant racism, the name of Chester Arthur usually does not enter our mind when we think about it. It did not make him notorious in history. People today do not consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt's ending of the Chinese Exclusion Act as a memorable event during his presidency either. Similarly, Ronald Reagan is well known for many of his legacies, positive or negative, but the 1986 immigration reform generally is not one of the first items we associate with Reagan when his name pops up. Reagan's reform legalized three million unauthorized immigrants but punished employers who hired immigrants illegally. The current bill in the Senate would do a lot of the same, gradually normalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants who are already here while taking steps to prevent future unauthorized entry.

The regulation of immigration has been a perennial concern in America on the federal level ever since Congress started to enact restrictive immigration policies after the Civil War. Compared to many other issues, immigration has a particularly cyclical nature in American political history. Whenever there is an influx of a different group of foreign nationals, whether it is the Irish, the Chinese, the Japanese, or the Mexicans, anti-immigration sentiments rise and Congress passes legislation to block immigration. Later, due to the discovery that such laws do not help or the ebbing of nativist tides, the government relaxes its grip. History keeps repeating itself, and it is likely that if this round of immigration reform passes both houses of Congress and gets signed by Obama, at some point in the future another spike in the number of immigrants, legal or undocumented, will whip up yet another wave of nativism which will then subside, completing another cycle. Looking from this perspective, immigration reform bill being rolled out by Obama and the current Congress may just become another episode resembling Roosevelt's ending of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Reagan's 1986 immigration law. It would undoubtedly be a necessary and good change, and the president would be able to take credit for it. But it would also be subsumed into the never-ending cycle of immigration control portrayed by future historians.

If Republicans do not succeed in their repetitive efforts to annul health care reform, that is likely going to be Obama's lasting legacy that will be remembered by our generation's descendants. By making health care coverage virtually universally accessible through various means, Obama's health care law will be known as the beginning of the end of our country's chronic problem of a large population unable to receive treatment when ill. Magnitude-wise, both health- care and immigration reform measures (if the latter passes both chambers) will affect tens of millions of people, so substantively they should be equally remembered as Obama's legacies. Nevertheless the reality is that health care does not possess the uniquely cyclical quality of immigration reforms in our nation's history, and so the former is likely to get more space devoted to it in the history books of the future.