Obama’s Immigration Decisions Will Shape Both Parties for Years

As Obama moves toward allowing millions of undocumented people to stay in the U.S., Republicans face a defining choice.

NOGALES, AZ - JUNE 18: Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Arizona. Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. 
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Ronald Brownstein
July 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

In­flam­mat­ory as it’s been, the de­bate over un­ac­com­pan­ied Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren cross­ing the U.S. bor­der is only the warm-up for an ap­proach­ing im­mig­ra­tion con­front­a­tion with even great­er stakes.

Re­gard­less of how Con­gress handles his re­quest for more bor­der re­sources, Pres­id­ent Obama is mov­ing to­ward a his­tor­ic—and ex­plos­ive—ex­ec­ut­ive or­der that will provide leg­al status to a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of the es­tim­ated 11.7 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants in the U.S. One seni­or White House of­fi­cial says that while “what’s hap­pen­ing at the bor­der will provide at­mo­spher­ics for the [pres­id­ent’s] de­cision,” it won’t stop him from act­ing on the un­doc­u­mented—prob­ably be­fore the midterm elec­tions. The res­ult­ing col­li­sion over Obama’s ex­pec­ted ac­tion could last­ingly define both the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an parties for the bur­geon­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion.

Throughout his pres­id­ency, Obama has fol­lowed a con­sist­ent strategy on im­mig­ra­tion. He’s toughened en­force­ment and ag­gress­ively pur­sued de­port­a­tion, look­ing (as he ac­know­ledged in a 2011 El Paso speech) to blunt the con­ser­vat­ive ar­gu­ment that the U.S. must se­cure the bor­der be­fore ad­dress­ing the un­doc­u­mented. Obama’s hard line, com­bined with the eco­nom­ic slow­down, has tightened the net. Dur­ing George W. Bush’s two terms, the best es­tim­ate has it, the num­ber of un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants in the U.S. jumped by about 3 mil­lion; un­der Obama, there’s been no in­crease. But while the tough­er en­force­ment has angered lib­er­al groups, it has failed to move House Re­pub­lic­ans, 80 per­cent of whom rep­res­ent dis­tricts that are whiter than the na­tion­al av­er­age. After the Sen­ate passed bi­par­tis­an com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form that in­cluded a path­way to cit­izen­ship in 2013, House Re­pub­lic­ans shelved it—just as they did a sim­il­ar bi­par­tis­an bill Bush helped shoulder through the Sen­ate in 2006.

Two young girls watch a World Cup soc­cer match from their hold­ing area where hun­dreds of im­mig­rant chil­dren are be­ing pro­cessed and held at the U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion No­gales Place­ment Cen­ter in Ari­zona. (Ross D. Frank­lin-Pool/Getty Im­ages)Polls con­sist­ently find broad sup­port for such a pack­age: In a Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey this week, 63 per­cent of whites, 71 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, and 85 per­cent of His­pan­ics said those here il­leg­ally should be gran­ted leg­al status after meet­ing cer­tain re­quire­ments. But many House Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve that in their right-lean­ing dis­tricts, the only voters who cast their bal­lots on the is­sue are those op­posed to leg­al­iz­a­tion.

When House Speak­er John Boehner told Obama last month that his cham­ber would not act this year, the pres­id­ent an­nounced that he would ad­vance leg­al­iz­a­tion through ex­ec­ut­ive or­der. The un­ac­com­pan­ied-minor crisis com­plic­ated Obama’s plan. This chal­lenge is ac­tu­ally bet­ter un­der­stood as a refugee prob­lem than an im­mig­ra­tion one, since stud­ies have found that most of the kids are flee­ing neigh­bor­hood vi­ol­ence or fam­ily break­down. Yet the surge of chil­dren has re­vived im­ages of a broken bor­der and pres­sured the pres­id­ent to again em­brace tough en­force­ment meas­ures.

Obama won’t likely go as far as Re­pub­lic­ans in re­trench­ing the pro­tec­tions for un­ac­com­pan­ied Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren that Bush signed in­to law in 2008. But Obama has in­dic­ated he wants to re­turn more kids im­me­di­ately and then de­vote ad­di­tion­al leg­al re­sources to more quickly ad­ju­dic­at­ing the re­main­ing cases. There’s a hu­man­it­ari­an case for this: The lengthy delays may be en­cour­aging more chil­dren to make the dan­ger­ous jour­ney. But the ap­proach also re­flects the White House’s re­cog­ni­tion that con­trolling the bor­der is the ne­ces­sary polit­ic­al pre­con­di­tion to com­plet­ing an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der to leg­al­ize many of the im­mig­rants here il­leg­ally.

The pres­id­ent can’t provide them cit­izen­ship without ac­tion by Con­gress. But us­ing the same the­ory of “de­ferred ac­tion” that he em­ployed in 2012 for chil­dren brought to the U.S. il­leg­ally by their par­ents, he could ap­ply pro­sec­utori­al dis­cre­tion to al­low some groups of the un­doc­u­mented (such as adults here il­leg­ally with chil­dren who are U.S. cit­izens) to ob­tain work per­mits and func­tion openly. Though the ad­min­is­tra­tion is still de­bat­ing the reach of Obama’s au­thor­ity, some top im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates hope he could leg­al­ize up to half of the un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion.

On im­mig­ra­tion, Obama is driv­ing de­cisions that could shape the two parties for years.

Such a move would in­furi­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, both be­cause the bor­der crisis has deepened their con­vic­tion that any move to­ward leg­al­iz­a­tion in­spires more il­leg­al mi­gra­tion and be­cause the pres­id­ent would be by­passing Con­gress. They would likely chal­lenge an Obama or­der through both le­gis­la­tion and lit­ig­a­tion. Every 2016 GOP pres­id­en­tial con­tender could feel com­pelled to prom­ise to re­peal the or­der.

Those would be mo­ment­ous choices for a party already strug­gling to at­tract His­pan­ics and Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans. Alf­onso Aguilar, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Latino Part­ner­ship ini­ti­at­ive at the con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­an Prin­ciples Pro­ject, warns that if Re­pub­lic­ans “again fall for the trap” and try to over­turn an Obama leg­al­iz­a­tion plan without of­fer­ing an al­tern­at­ive path to leg­al status, the party will con­demn it­self to an­oth­er lop­sided de­fi­cit among His­pan­ics—and to a likely de­feat—in 2016. Dav­id Ay­on, seni­or ad­viser to the polling firm Latino De­cisions, says that if Re­pub­lic­ans erupt against an Obama leg­al­iz­a­tion ini­ti­at­ive, it “could turn the Latino vote as rug­gedly anti-Re­pub­lic­an as the black vote.”

On many fronts, Obama seems to be only re­act­ing to events. But on im­mig­ra­tion, as on oth­er so­cial is­sues such as gay rights and con­tra­cep­tion, he is driv­ing de­cisions that could shape the two parties for years—and ce­ment the Demo­crat­ic hold on the co­ali­tion of grow­ing demo­graph­ic groups that powered his two vic­tor­ies.