An Unworkable Delay? President Obama, The Elections, and Immigration Reform

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? - Langston Hughes

For many, President Obama’s most recent statement on immigration reform may be a strange echo of the famous poem.

President Obama announced on Sept. 6 (not long before I sat down to write this article), that he will delay action on immigration reform until after the November midterm elections. This, as many news outlets pointed out, runs counter to his statements earlier in the summer that he had tasked members of the executive branch with providing recommendations for possible action (for a story on that, check out the NBC News story).

The New York Times quoted a White House official on the announcement: “‘Because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the president believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections.”

As citizens concerned with public justice, our question must be bigger than only asking whether the President has harmfully delayed reform on one of the most pressing public issues of our time. We must also ask, what do we make of a system where the decision on taking action on such an issue of public justice seems to have relied on several Democrats in the Senate fearing for the outcome of their races?

But what are elections for? For the Democrats in the Senate, the races are less a referendum on public views as they are the linchpin in securing a majority in the upper chamber. For the president, they are closely tied with his party and their races, and the effect his announcement might have on those races’ outcomes, even as the White House insists that this is not about election outcomes as much as it is about long-term sustainability (see report fromTIME).

I’m less interested in what proportion of the delay is due to November and what to considerations of the whole issue; I’m sure there are components of both. From the nature of the announcement and the subsequent reports, it seems that the elections are a determining factor, which makes me ask again: what are elections even for?

Article I, Section II. “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States...”

Amendment XVII. “Note: Article I, section 3, of the Constitution was modified by the 17th amendment. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years…”

We elect our members of Congress. “Chosen by the People of the several States” or “elected by the people thereof” means that the elections actually find primary meaning in our communities. They are what make this government republican in form - that we choose our representatives, that we, in choosing them, in electing them, charge them with the responsibility to represent us in the work of governing.

But if that’s the purpose, then what do we make of the fact that the workings of Congress and the president are both delayed in the case of immigration because of concerns about reelection, keeping majority in the Senate, or not angering this or that constituency? That distorts both the purpose of the elections, which is about our choosing our representatives, and the purpose of governance, which is, or at least ought to be, separated from the outcome of the elections?

I don’t mean that we aren’t aware that a representative’s decisions and votes during his or her term affect our decision to reelect them. Those decisions should. But the purpose of governing is not to get reelected. The purpose of governing is to govern well. The purpose of elections are to choose those who will govern well. When concerns about reelection result in inaction on a pressing public justice issue, then we have a problem.

If the point of policy becomes the right maneuvers to ensure one keeps their seat, their majority, their control, then are we even doing politics anymore? Or are we, however inadvertently, testing what happens to dreams deferred?

-Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog: chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.