Obama's Risky Course on Immigration
President Barack Obama initially tried to avoid the immigration action that he now seems determined to take. He let the Senate pass its own bill, and quietly waited for months on end for Speaker of the House John Boehner to muster something. When Boehner failed, he rewarded Obama's patience by explaining that Republicans can't pass immigration legislation because the president is untrustworthy, and that the president can't act unilaterally because such action would . . . prevent the House from passing legislation.
In a sea of bad faith, Obama is now sailing solo. It may take some time for Republicans to chart their own course. A New York Times report today suggests that the Koch brothers -- and the political money machine that they supervise -- are not eager to see their investment in the Republican majority squandered on a government shutdown over immigration.
The Kochs seem pretty pragmatic. They want the Environmental Protection Agency neutered, support for green energy killed, and carbon emissions running wild and free. But immigration? They don't seem to object: Illegal immigrants buy carpet and heat their homes, too.
The Republican base, of course, has a problem with immigration. The presence of immigrants who arrived or stayed illegally in the U.S. offends the base's moral sensibility. In addition, base voters fear the immigrants are taking American jobs, absorbing American tax dollars and turning the nation a dangerous hue. The base wants the invaders repelled. It's not a generous view. But it's a coherent one.
Party leaders are at a loss to balance the demands of the base and the Kochs and the Chamber of Commerce and their own electoral ambitions. They can't say they support deportation, and they can't say they don't. They can't create a path to legalization and, fearing creation of another 11 million brown voters, they don't want a path to citizenship.
Obama is about to put the Democratic Party on record for amnesty, enabling millions of immigrants to avoid deportation and, most likely, obtain some type of temporary work permits. The legal basis appears to be the executive's "prosecutorial discretion." My Bloomberg View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru points out that Democratic claims that previous Republican presidents used this tool do not justify Obama's action, which would vastly exceed all previous efforts. At the Washington Post, Greg Sargent takes the opposite view, arguing that the action is generally within legal and political norms.
That debate will be thrashed out over the weeks ahead. Either way, there is an element of hypocrisy to the president's plan -- he has claimed before that he lacked the authority for such sweeping action and clearly wanted to avoid taking it. There is an element of political calculation: There are votes and coalitions at stake, and Republicans seem well poised to forfeit them. And there is an element of humane desperation: The absence of legal status thwarts human potential, and Republicans appear unwilling to remove the obstacles (since their base prefers to remove the people).
There is also an element of considerable risk. Yes, any executive action would be temporary. Yes, Congress could pass legislation to supersede it. But this could prove to be a turning point in the partisan polarization of Washington. Having reshaped itself in Newt Gingrich's image, the Republican Party has proved increasingly willing to undermine democratic norms -- and institutions -- in hopes of inheriting the rubble.
If Obama is not departing from norms in this case, he certainly looks to be pushing the line. With a functioning Congress, large changes to immigration would rightly be the legislature's prerogative. Of course, we don't have a functioning Congress, and we do have millions of people living in limbo. It's not hard to understand why Obama is doing this, and perhaps party relations in Washington really can't get much worse. But I think they will.
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