Republicans Hand Obama an Immigration Political Triumph

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Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Immediately after the election, when John Boehner asked Obama to hold off on unilateral action, reporters asked if he would promise to bring an immigration bill to the House floor. He refused. A senior administration official pinpointed this as the moment when any chance of delay ended. For all the drama surrounding President Obama’s announcement that he would ease immigration enforcement, the decision was always a very easy one to make. It was not even a decision Obama made so much as one that was made for him. Nor was the choice especially difficult to grapple with. The humanitarian and political logic all point in the same direction.

There are no serious legal questions about the administration’s plan, which will temporarily legalize the status of some 4.3 million undocumented immigrants. Even lawyers for the conservative Federalist Society concede Obama’s legal reasoning. The serious questions revolve around political norms. And conservative critics have a point that Obama is stretching norms of political behavior by enacting effective changes in the law solely on his own.

I have taken that argument very seriously, though learning more has softened my reservations. Immigration law, unlike other kinds of law, is explicitly designed by Congress to delegate authority to the president. “The Immigration and Nationality Act and other laws are chock-full of huge grants of statutory authority to the president,” notes Republican lawyer Margaret Stock. And as Dara Lind points out, George Bush’s similar decision in 1990 impacted roughly the same proportion of undocumented immigrants as Obama’s. The announcement by Obama may go farther than any previous use of presidential discretion, but it is an incremental rather than a revolutionary advance on previous such moves. But it is true that Obama’s decision is the most dramatic presidential relaxation of immigration enforcement, which is to say it is an undeniably aggressive expansion of executive branch authority.

The political calculus, on the other hand, is perfectly simple. Obama underwent negotiations with Republicans in Congress planning to trade political advantage for policy gain. In return for a policy accomplishment, he would give Republicans a chance to shore up their standing with immigrant communities and to settle immigration as a live issue.

Substantively, Obama’s executive order gives him less than he hoped to gain with a bipartisan law. But politically, he has ceded no advantage. Indeed, he has gained one. Not only does immigration remain a live issue, it is livelier than ever. The GOP primary will remorselessly drive its candidates rightward and force them to promise to overturn Obama’s reform, and thus to immediately threaten with deportation some 5 million people — none of whom can vote, but nearly all of whom have friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors who can.

Michael Gerson, the Bush-era speechwriter and an advocate of bipartisan legislation, warns that Obama is “uniting conservatives — from the Obama-obsessed to reasonable institutionalists — in fervent opposition.” Actually, just the opposite is occurring. Ardent populists are demanding a series of suicidal confrontations, from shutdowns to, potentially, impeachment, as the Party leadership strains desperately to keep them at bay. In the Senate, Jeff Sessions, a full-spectrum reactionary, is waging a fight for the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee against Mike Enzi, with Sessions promising to use his position as a bastion of full-scale resistance on immigration.

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Photo: Kevin Hagen/2014 Getty Images

Meanwhile, the GOP’s business wing is trying to redirect conservative anger into small-scale legislative progress. Juleanna Glover, a Republican lobbyist, points out that Obama’s order makes the logic for legislative cooperation paradoxically much stronger. The coalition for reform always held together liberals, who demanded relief for split families, with pro-business conservatives, who wanted to ease rules on high-tech workers. Obama’s orders only provide modest relief for the mathematicians and scientists whose skills are in highest demand by business. Republicans have been happy in the past to provide relief to them as a stand-alone measure. The Wall Street Journal editorial page today proposes exactly this, calling it “The best GOP revenge.”

This rather mild form of vengeance, though, is probably not what furious tea partiers have in mind. And here is where Obama’s announcement will leave its deepest imprint. The emotional momentum in the Republican Party now falls to its most furious, deranged voices. Michele Bachmann has denounced what she calls “millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language.” Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama has even presented the most sympathetic slice of the immigrant community — the ones serving in the military — as a source of insidious competition and even treason. (“I don’t want American citizens having to compete with illegal immigrants for jobs in our military … These individuals have to be absolutely 100 percent loyal and trustworthy.” Steve King, a regular font of nativist outbursts, is setting himself up as a power broker in Iowa, which will command center stage in the GOP primary for months and months on end.

This is the point of contrast that Obama drew out clearly and effectively. After years of legislative muddle, he was able to detach himself completely from Congress and articulate his own values. His remarks, met with rapt attention in immigrant communities, continued his rhetorical tradition of expanding the American family, accurately presenting himself (and, by extension, his party) as an ally to marginalized Americans. Speaking with evident passion, the president deemed the children of undocumented immigrants “as American as Malia or Sasha.” He cited scripture: “We shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.” He drew an emotional bond between immigrant communities and the Democratic Party’s ideal of compassion and tolerance. That bond will be his announcement’s most enduring legacy.