A huge misstep.

A Republican Moment on Immigration

Lanhee Chen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who also teaches public policy at Stanford University. He was the policy director of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
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Immigration reform has never been a priority for President Barack Obama. In 2008, he promised to push comprehensive legislation during his first year as president. He didn't, despite having a Democratic-controlled Congress in 2009 and 2010. This year, rather than working with pro-reform Republicans such as Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan on bipartisan, permanent changes, he said he would act unilaterally on immigration by the end of the summer. It should now come as no surprise that the president decided to delay this executive action until after the midterm elections in November.

This decision is entirely political, intended to help save vulnerable Senate Democrats locked in tight re-election campaigns. In making this decision, however, Obama may have created challenges for Democrats that extend far beyond 2014.

His announcement has angered immigration-reform advocates, particularly in the Latino community. They have suggested that the president sold them out and put politics over people. These criticisms are true, and while they are strong words, they are probably nothing more than that to the White House. That's because for Obama and many other Democrats, the politics on this issue are very simple. After all, at no point do Democrats feel as if they are in danger of losing Latino support to Republicans. Thus, disappointing Latino and Hispanic voters on this issue (again) carried little political risk. Frank Sharry, a reform advocate, put the sentiment best: "It's never convenient to help out Latinos."

Republicans now have a unique opportunity to make both political and policy gains -- to benefit their candidates and campaigns, as well as to make lasting fixes in the broken U.S. immigration system. It starts by addressing reform before Obama does.

Politically, it's unlikely that anything Republicans do now will completely change the hearts and minds of large numbers of Hispanic voters. But by acting quickly, Republicans can create an opening for their candidates in border states and start a conversation that could produce electoral benefits in 2016.

From the perspective of policy, Republicans can lead the way on permanent improvements to the immigration system. It isn't realistic to expect a single, comprehensive bill in the next few months, but Republicans can begin to pursue a step-by-step approach on issues where there is some agreement -- beefed-up border security, more robust employer verification requirements, increased visas for temporary and highly skilled workers, and the granting of some legal status to those brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

By doing so, Republicans would be taking steps that contrast with Obama's intention to go it alone on actions that could easily be wiped away by a future presidential administration. And they have an opportunity to make the president and Democrats pay a political price for disappointing immigration reformers yet again.

Obama punted on his proposed executive action because he made a calculation that the gains of a delay would outweigh the drawbacks. Now it is up to Republicans to change that equation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net