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Trumka Urges "Bold" Steps by Obama on Immigration

Trumka Urges "Bold" Steps by Obama on Immigration

By Alexis Simendinger - August 28, 2014

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor 

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Thursday he worries President Obama will not be “bold enough” to take sufficient executive steps -- in response to congressional inaction -- to halt deportations that are splitting families in the United States.

He told RCP it is possible other executive decisions with potentially major repercussions -- such as whether to strike Islamic State terrorist targets in Syria, and whether to do so without congressional approval -- “could set things back” for immigration changes this fall.

“I sometimes think of him like a fireman sitting in a room with bells going off, and he might respond to the bell that’s loudest,” Trumka said of the president.

“He’s going to do something. I hope it’s bold enough to be worthwhile.”

Trumka repeatedly offered lukewarm assessments of Obama’s efforts on behalf of organized labor. “He hasn’t stayed aggressive enough,” he said during a reporters’ breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “He has a ways to go.”

The union leader, who represents more than 11 million members, said he has argued to Obama’s advisers during meetings that the administration will encounter the same partisan grief from GOP opponents whether the president’s immigration actions are mild or bold. But to mobilize millions of dispirited Latinos, Obama’s executive decision must be expansive in assisting undocumented workers and their families who are in the United States and fear expulsion, he said.

“No matter what he does, the right wing is going to go bonkers and say he doesn’t care about anything, he’s not enforcing the law. But if he goes mild, he’ll energize the right, but he won’t energize the center and the left,” Trumka said, explaining a political strategy that he said could produce a more hospitable congressional makeup for new law.

If Obama “goes bold, then he’ll again energize the right the same amount, but he’ll also energize the left, and that needs to happen in order for this election to elect enough people to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he asserted.

Labor organizations believe the flawed immigration system and the presence of more than 11 million undocumented workers depress wages for all U.S. workers. A repaired system would “drive wages up for everybody” and help the economy grow more rapidly, the labor president repeated. 

Trumka offered effusive confidence about recommendations Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is expected to present to Obama following a review of options ordered by the president in June. Obama asked Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to examine all avenues he could take within the law to compel immigration changes using his executive authority. The secretary and White House officials have met extensively with stakeholders, including AFL-CIO representatives, but have not tipped their hands about where Obama is heading -- or when he will act.

Before his re-election in 2012, the president ordered a DHS enforcement waiver that permits qualified offspring of undocumented immigrants to avert deportation if they were brought to the United States as children. Obama’s decision, widely applauded in the Latino community, does not have the force of law, and is temporary, but with legislation stalled in the House, the president has said he is prepared to act on his own where possible.

Trumka faulted the president for supporting a legislative strategy on immigration that bowed to Republicans’ insistence on border-first enforcement as a condition for GOP support of reforms. The administration’s resulting robust record of deportations angered the president’s base supporters, while failing to secure House Republican backing, even after the Senate adopted a bipartisan reform measure.

“It was a classic trap that the Republicans set and he fell for it,” he said.    

Johnson “is going to be instrumental” during decision-making discussions with Obama because he has the expertise and has voiced some support for deportation relief policies favored by organized labor “that are going to solve the problem,” Trumka predicted.

Some red-state Senate Democrats in tough re-election battles this year have publicly expressed their reservations about Obama’s immigration intentions, fearing a backlash from independent voters and more attacks from the GOP. Conservatives are poised to condemn any Obama announcement on immigration as constitutional overreach, a theme used extensively by GOP candidates on the campaign trail. House Republicans recently announced they are prepared to spend more than a third of a million dollars to challenge Obama’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act in court.

Trumka conceded that “in some areas” of the country, Obama’s executive decision on immigration may make some Senate Democratic candidates sweat and potentially add jitters to the prospect of holding control of the Senate. But “I think overall it’s a plus because of what it does to energize the Latino community,” he told reporters.

Although some GOP lawmakers have threatened to battle any Obama immigration changes this fall by leveraging a potential government shutdown over budget agreements, Trumka said he is not persuaded such a ploy could gain broad traction on Capitol Hill so close to Election Day.

“I think they’ve had a little lesson in that and got burned,” he replied, referring to the publicly unpopular 16-day shutdown in October 2013. “If they’re going to do that, I hope they do it before the election,” he said with a wide smile.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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