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When Good Politics Meets the Right Thing to Do: Four Key Points About Immigration Executive Action

 

President Obama’s pledge to take executive action on immigration is center stage in post-election Washington.  Here are four key points to understand:

President Obama has made it clear that he’s going to lean into the issue and not wait yet again for Republicans to act: As we have highlighted, if this country is going to see progress on immigration before the end of the Obama presidency, it’s going to come from the executive branch and not the legislative branch.  The same Republicans who refused to bring up immigration reform in the House this Congress are now in charge of both chambers of Congress.  This is the party that blocked immigration reform in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2014.  It’s the party that voted to repeal DACA for DREAMers and consistently opted for fear-mongering ISIS, Ebola, border security and “amnesty” on the 2014 campaign trail.  This is not the party of bipartisan solutions and responsible governing.  In fact, a sign of the times is that neither McConnell nor Boehner have put immigration reform on their priority list.  They can’t.  The reaction from their right would overwhelm them – and they are certainly not about to work with President Obama on this issue and help deliver him a win.  So, as much as we need Congress to pass a permanent solution to our dysfunctional immigration system, we are not holding our breath.

Thankfully, President Obama seems to also realize that he’s given Republicans more than enough time to do their job, and now he has to do his.  This weekend, President Obama told Bob Schieffer of CBS News that he would love Republicans to deliver legislation to his desk, but he wasn’t going to wait around for them to do so.  Executive action will come by the end of the year and will not be delayed pending Congressional action.  If Congress wants to do something about it, they can pass a comprehensive overhaul of immigration that the President can sign, but until then he’s going to move the ball forward.

Every President since Eisenhower has taken executive action on immigration; President Obama’s plans are well within his existing legal authority: The President has broad, clear legal authority to act and change the way immigration laws are enforced.  The legal case for executive action is airtight and the precedent for presidential action on immigration is extensive – every president since Dwight Eisenhower has taken executive action on immigration, on 39 different occasions over the past 60 years.  This includes President George H.W. Bush protecting over 40 percent of the population of undocumented immigrants in 1990. The real radical option is doing nothing on immigration and maintaining the broken status quo. 

Republicans are fighting immigration executive action tooth and nail because they know it will hurt them in 2016: So long as President Obama does not act on immigration, the Republican Party is able to maintain a tenuous internal truce between those lawmakers who oppose immigration reform and those who support it, while muddying the waters to Latino voters about who is to blame for the stalemate over immigration.  As soon as President Obama takes executive action, the hawks in the GOP will be apoplectic and lead the party to further cement its anti-Latino, anti-immigrant reputation.  This is a nightmare scenario for establishment Republicans who recognize that a protracted battle over executive action would permanently damage the GOP brand with Latinos, Asian-American and immigrant voters heading into 2016.  As pro-reform Republican Alfonso Aguilar told the Associated Press, “The initial reaction from Republicans is going to be very ugly and not well-thought out, unfortunately,” and likely will involve taking actions that are “going to antagonize Hispanics.”

Doing the right thing will deliver on Latino voters’ unfulfilled expectations: Assessing how Latino voters were disillusioned in many 2014 races due to the delay in executive action, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post writes, “There is a lesson here that goes beyond immigration: Obama would have been better off if he had done what he thought was right and let the politics take care of themselves … politics is not just always a game of winning the next election.  It’s about doing, as Obama belatedly remembered on Wednesday, ‘what I think is best for the country.’”

As Milbank’s Post colleague Jonathan Capehart phrases it, “Mr. President, issue the executive order on immigration you promised…Whatever you do will inspire blinding rage from the opposing corner.   And if you’re going to get folks mad, it ought to be in the service of helping people who are trapped in a broken system long neglected by Washington.”

And a new editorial in La Opinión, the nation’s largest Spanish language newspaper, reads: “President Obama had said that he would issue an executive order on immigration after the midterm elections.  Now is the moment … Even though an executive order is the only path left, it will unleash a political storm among the opposition.  But that will happen anyway, whether because of immigration or another reason.  Let it at least be for something that benefits our country.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

Americans are no longer waiting for Congress on immigration.  President Obama is preparing to move forward, and numerous states and localities are enacting pro-immigrant policies. If the President does the right thing, millions of immigrants who have established deep ties to America will be able to live freely, work legally and make a bigger contribution to our tax base and economy.  But they won’t be the only winners.  The majority of Americans who prefer action over the status quo will see government taking commonsense steps, at least until we have a Congress that will finish the job. And the Democratic Party will do something they didn’t do in 2014, which is to lean into a defining and mobilizing issue for the fastest growing groups of voters in the country, perhaps setting up another wave election with dramatically different results.