Obama's Loss on Immigration Case May Be Political Win for Party

  • Appeal to Supreme Court thrusts issue into middle of campaign
  • Democrats seize on court ruling to blame Republicans

President Barack Obama addresses the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's 38th anniversary awards gala at the Washington Convention Center on Oct. 8, 2015, in Washington.

Photographer: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

A loss in federal court for President Barack Obama on immigration may be a political win for his Democratic Party.

The administration’s quick decision Tuesday to take the fight to the Supreme Court throws the case into the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign and raises the visibility of an issue that is driving the nation’s growing Latino electorate away from Republicans.

Within hours of the ruling by a federal appeals court, blocking Obama from shielding more than 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, Democrats laid blame for the country’s tangled immigration laws at the feet of Republicans. If the Supreme Court takes up the case, the battle will stoke resentments among some Latino voters toward billionaire Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates who have made anti-immigrant statements in their primary campaigns.

Campaign Battlegrounds

Latinos are a crucial constituency in states including Florida, Nevada and Colorado that are battlegrounds in the presidential election. They widely perceive the Republican 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, said Fernand Amandi, a principal at Bendixen & Amandi, a Miami-based market research firm.

"Hispanics see it as the issue where soft racism is expressed on that community," Amandi said. "There’s a great sensitivity and resonance to how the issue is debated that many Hispanics then blame the Republican party for."

Latinos also overwhelmingly judge Republicans as responsible for obstructing an overhaul of immigration rules and strongly support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an approach favored by Obama and opposed by most Republican presidential candidates, he said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in a lawsuit brought by 26 states that Obama went too far in using executive action to alter U.S. immigration rules. To prevail, the administration now will have to persuade the Supreme Court to take the case and then win the vote of at least one of the five Republican appointees who constitute the court’s conservative majority.

Republicans argue that immigration policy should be determined by Congress, not unilaterally by the president. Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said the appeals court decision “is yet another confirmation of the lawlessness at the foundation of President Obama’s ‘legacy-making’ initiatives.”

Case Timing

The White House decision to press the case creates the prospect of a ruling in late June, at the tail end of the Supreme Court’s current term and in the middle of the presidential campaign. The administration will have to file its petition in the next few weeks to ensure the court has time to hear the case during its nine-month term.

Democrats seized on the decision to cast blame on Republicans for blocking action on immigration legislation.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on the floor of the chamber that Obama took action "because he was trapped” by the refusal of congressional Republicans to take up immigration legislation.

“The Republican Party has neglected the lessons of the 2012 elections and has plunged over a cliff following Donald Trump, Ben Carson and the others," Reid said. 

In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won only about 17 percent of the non-white vote and received just 206 electoral votes to Obama’s 332. A party-sponsored post-election review noted that the white share of the U.S. electorate was shrinking and that the share of Latinos and other minority groups was growing. It concluded that Republicans need to campaign among minority groups “and demonstrate we care about them too.”

Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination, and her main challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, both released statements decrying the appeals court decision. Clinton called the lawsuit against Obama’s executive action politically motivated and said the Supreme Court should rule in favor of the administration “so that the millions who are affected can stop living in fear of their families being broken apart.”

Deferred Deportations

Obama’s executive action would defer deportations for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least five years, can pass a criminal background check, and have a child who is an American citizen.

The president announced the policy in November 2014, after he failed to persuade the Republican-controlled Congress to approve changes he said would bring undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows” into productive society. It’s been on hold since February as the case made its way through the courts.

Newly elected Speaker Paul Ryan has said House Republicans won’t consider legislation on immigration reform before 2017, calling Obama an unreliable partner because he attempted to bypass Congress with executive action.

The appeals court ruling “pretty effectively closed down any meaningful chance of immigration reform before Obama leaves office,” Richard Murray, a pollster and political science professor at the University of Houston, said in a phone interview. 

If the high court takes the case, the decision would come in June, “just as the political parties are settling in on their candidates,” Murray said. “Immigration has already become a huge issue; I think it will be a wedge issue in the presidential campaign.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that opposes Obama’s executive actions, said a court ruling ahead of the election also could mobilize immigration opponents to turnout for Republican candidates.

“If they take it up and the Supreme Court issues a ruling before the first Tuesday next November, that’s pretty consequential either way it’s decided,” Krikorian said.

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