Clever signs don't produce sound policy.

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Obama Will Act on Immigration. What's Next?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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So on Friday, President Barack Obama is going to take some sort of sweeping action to regularize the status of millions of people who are living in America illegally. Though I support generous immigration policies, I'm against this action, for reasons that Ross Douthat has outlined:

... It would have unreasonable to expect, say, liberal and libertarian critics of George W. Bush’s expansive claims of wartime authority to be mollified by being told: “Don’t worry, when you elect a president, you can run Guantanamo and the black sites and the N.S.A. the way you want, so stop complaining and just focus on the next election.” Those critics did focus on the next election, and in 2008 they won it, and put a liberal constitutional lawyer in the Oval Office in Bush’s stead. But in the end the Bush administration created precedents and facts on the ground that his notionally civil libertarian successor just accepted, and claimed powers that a liberal president has often (if oh-so-reluctantly) exploited to the hilt. And all of this didn’t just happen for bureaucracies-in-motion reasons; it happened because new precedents create future norms, and the more power a given executive claims the more powers are available to his successor, because the initial claim makes subsequent ones that much more imaginable and normal-seeming.

So the ultimate policy impact of Obama’s promised move in this case, while obviously important, is not at all the most important reason to hope he thinks better of it and backs off. The stakes are higher than immigration; they have to do with how we’re governed, by whom, and under what limits and constraints. And whatever happens with the policy itself in the long run, those limits are about to be significantly reduced.

Obama's stated reasons for doing this are, of course, absurd: He says he has to act because Republicans won't, even though he will in fact be acting before Republicans can pass a bill. What he's actually doing is insisting that the Republican House has to pass the bill from a Democratic-controlled Senate. And he's doing it now because he doesn't want Republicans to pass a bill; a Republican-passed bill, if they managed it, would be less generous than the one the Democrats proposed. He'd much rather create facts on the ground via executive pen -- which gets him what he wants plus the exciting possibility that Republicans will respond in some rash and destructive way -- and quickly, because right now offers the most insulation for purple-state Democrats if there is any blowback.

The defenses of this action also seem to me to be pretty weak, as David Frum has ably shown. But it's going to happen, so the real question is: What now

First, the political questions. I think (and hope) that Republicans are not going to do something really rash, like try to impeach Obama. That would be terrible for the country, and I must point out that it wouldn't be so great for Republicans, either. They may well try some less suicidal course, such as cutting the funding needed to issue all those new green cards. Obama can veto such a move, and will, which might mean another shutdown.

But I'm not sure that this would be a gain for Democrats this time around. Republicans have a pretty clean and simple story to tell: We passed the budget, except for the funding for this unprecedented action, and Obama chose to veto it. Obama has to explain that it was necessary to shut down the government, because otherwise, how is he going to put through his dramatic and unpopular plan? Democrats seem convinced that they can create new facts on the ground without blowback, but I remember the last time everyone was so convinced they'd hit on a splendid electoral plan, and that was when they organized the Blue Dogs for a suicide charge over the Obamacare cliff.

Now, maybe Democrats don't care; maybe it's worth risking an election loss to do the right thing. I think that's a fine principle. But if you adopt it, then you should be clear that that's what you're doing, and I'm not sure that Democrats are very clear on this point. They seem to think that this is a minor technical change that no one outside of the activist base will notice, like rewriting the regulations for carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants. This does not strike me as very plausible.

In the long term, it seems to me that we still have an immigration-policy problem. There's some debate over whether Ronald Reagan's 1980s amnesty increased illegal immigration by providing incentives -- and U.S. anchors -- for further migrants. But I think we can pretty definitively say that amnesty did not actually put a stop to the flow. Once we regularize the status of the people who are here, we still have to answer some questions. Does the U.S. have a right to control the number of migrants into its territory? If so, how many migrants is an acceptable number? And what can and should we do to prevent a number larger than that from arriving on our doorstep?

Very few people are actually discussing these questions. We're discussing the political fallout, and telling stories about plucky folks whose lives would be really disrupted if they had to go back to their country of origin ... or, conversely, about cartel warriors slipping across the border and low-skilled workers facing competition from undocumented immigrants. I'm not saying we shouldn't listen to these stories, but they're not a very useful policy tool. Every policy you can imagine hurts someone and helps someone. We still have to decide how many people to help, and how.

Republicans haven't done a very good job articulating any sort of principles on this. But neither have Democrats. Which may be why we've ended up in a political standoff.

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

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net