Supreme Court’s Split Elevates Immigration as Election Issue

Obama: 'Heartbreaking' for Millions of Immigrants
  • Latino voter registration and citizenship applications are up
  • Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric has hardened battle lines

The Supreme Court’s deadlock on President Barack Obama’s immigration plan pushes one of the year’s most divisive political issues to the forefront, with Latino voter registration already surging in an apparent reaction to Donald Trump’s campaign.

The court split evenly, 4-4, on Obama’s plan to shield as many as 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, effectively killing the initiative for the rest of his presidency. The decision is likely to further energize Latino voters already mobilized by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Obama called the deadlock "heartbreaking" for undocumented immigrants and their families and said he believes he is out of options on the issue. "I don’t anticipate that there are any additional executive actions that we can take," he told reporters Thursday after the court announced the tie vote.

The 4-4 split means that an appeals court ruling against the plan will stand, as will a trial judge’s order preventing the administration from implementing the program. Political strategists said the deadlock may further motivate voters on both sides of the issue.

‘Demographic Problem’

“It’s going to create a renewed sense of panic and fear," said Fernand Amandi, a principal at Bendixen & Amandi, a Miami-based market research firm that did work for Obama’s 2012 campaign. “You’re not just voting for president: You’re voting on whether friends, family, neighbors or colleagues get to stay in the country.”

Republicans, meanwhile, "have a big demographic problem," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and lobbyist who backs Trump. "We have to expand our base to be competitive in future elections. But for this particular election I can see scenarios where it helps both sides. There’s a bigger untapped pool of white voters who resent immigration, and they will flock to Trump."

Crucial Constituency

Obama made passing reference to Trump in his remarks without naming him.

"Pretending that we can deport 11 million people or build a wall without spending tens of billions of taxpayers’ money is abetting what’s not correct," he said. "It’s not going to work. It’s a fantasy.”

Latinos are a crucial constituency in states including Florida, Nevada and Colorado that are battlegrounds in the presidential election. They widely perceive Trump’s campaign rhetoric as fanning hostility toward them, alienating even ethnic groups such as Cubans and Puerto Ricans for whom immigration policy isn’t directly relevant, Amandi said.

“This will be a flash-point focal issue in the Hispanic community,” Amandi said.

Obama said that U.S. immigration enforcement under his administration would continue to focus on "criminals," "gang-bangers" and people who have recently entered the country. "What we don’t do is to prioritize people who’ve been here a long time, who are otherwise law-abiding, who have roots and connections in their communities," he said.

Marginal Impact

Given the intensity of feelings on immigration and the focus on the issue in the Republican primary, the Supreme Court’s deadlock may have only a marginal additional impact, said Charles Cook, editor and publisher of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

“The battle lines are drawn and the coalitions are formed,” Cook said.

“You have increasing numbers of minority voters who believe the Republican party is of, by and for whites and looks down on anybody else,” Cook said. “It is very, very clear where most working-class whites are: they see trade and immigration as threats to their jobs and their lifestyles.”

While the mass shooting in Orlando recently propelled terrorism and gun control to the center of political debate, passions surrounding immigration have figured prominently in the political campaign, especially on the Republican side.

Southern Border

Trump won the Republican presidential primary with promises to deport all undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the southern border to reduce unauthorized immigration from Latin America.

When Gallup pollsters asked Americans the single most important challenge for the next president to address, immigration outstripped all other issues except the economy.

Immigration was cited by 14 percent, behind 19 percent who said the economy, according to the May 18-22 poll. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 17 percent called immigration the most important issue in the election.

"In the end, it is my firm belief that immigration is not something to fear," Obama said.

Registration Surge

There are signs that Trump is stoking a surge in Latino voter registration and citizenship application by immigrants.

In Georgia, Hispanic voter registration soared 19 percent from Oct. 13 to April 26, the deadline to register in order to vote in this year’s primary, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Should many new Latino voters show up to vote in November, Democrat Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning states like Colorado, Arizona and even Georgia would be significantly improved.

Clinton has said she would expand on Obama’s immigration plan to include the parents of undocumented immigrants brought into the country as youth.

"I believe that President Obama acted well within his constitutional and legal authority,” Clinton said in a statement after the decision was announced.

U.S. citizenship applications in the first quarter rose 28 percent from the same quarter last year. Though citizenship applications typically rise in presidential election years, there was only a 19 percent increase in 2012.

“Now we’ve got a choice about who we’re going to be as a country, what we want to teach our kids, and how we want to be represented in Congress, and in the White House,” Obama said. “These are all the questions that voters now are going to have to ask themselves and are going to have to answer in November.”

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