Obama's Unhappy Immigration Speech

It's your turn, Congress.

Photographer: Jim Bourg/Pool/Getty Images

For a guy who was finally fulfilling a promise he first made more than six years ago, President Barack Obama didn’t seem too happy about it. Maybe that's because he knows his plan to defer deportations for about 5 million undocumented immigrants, outlined in tonight's speech, is a partial and temporary fix that is likely to make Washington a meaner, smaller place.

His speech had all the usual hallmarks of a political set piece: the appeals to American ideals of equality and opportunity, the vignette about a striving immigrant, even a clumsy bipartisan invocation of his predecessor. His only real emotion, however, came in a flash of irritation at criticism from congressional Republicans that he was overstepping his authority. "To those members of Congress," he snapped, "I have one answer: pass a bill."

Swerving Path to Citizenship

Easier said than done, as he knows all too well. It was also a tacit admission of the main weakness of his plan. Whatever its merits -- and they are considerable -- it is no substitute for congressional action. It covers only half the population of undocumented immigrants, and does not increase visa levels to allow more immigrants of all skill levels to come to the U.S. Perhaps most important, to reiterate the point, it is only temporary. The next president could rescind these orders.

Obama would have done better to give the new Republican Congress a chance to take up immigration reform rather than issuing an executive order. But he didn’t, and now the ball is squarely in the Republicans’ court.

What can they do? They can shut down the government, but that would be shooting themselves in the foot, because the American people rightly blame Congress for such extremism. They can try to prevent the president from carrying out his orders by withholding funding from some federal agencies, which will draw a presidential veto. They can use Obama’s action as an excuse to do nothing on other major issues -- say, tax reform or trade -- but that would be cutting off their nose to spite their face. And they can complain endlessly, which they will no doubt do anyway.

They do have another option, the one they told voters they wanted most of all: the chance to govern.

It’s time for Republicans to put up or shut up. By now it's clear what they’re against -- the dreaded “a” word (amnesty). But what are they for? They can’t avoid that question any longer. Now that they are the majority party in both houses, they don’t have the luxury of sitting back and criticizing everything that Democrats propose. Now they’re in charge. They need to start acting like it.

If their criticism of Obama’s executive action is to have any credence, they need to back it up with action of their own, and that means beginning the work of formulating a bill, and holding hearings early in 2015. A great starting point, from both a policy and political standpoint, is the bipartisan bill the Senate passed last year.

Obama has made the first move, and neither he nor Republicans seem too happy about it. But the next move is theirs. The new Congress needs to respond constructively -- because this problem is a long way from being fixed.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.