The Intensifying Immigration Wars

Waldman analyzes the president’s Rose Garden speech from Monday, calling it “a pretty blatant thumb in the opposition’s eye”:

Obama is basically accurate in his characterization of Republican arguments, even if he portrays them in an uncomplimentary way. They do indeed argue that they won’t pass an immigration bill because they don’t trust the president to enforce it properly. Which is just an invitation for him to take executive action, making them more angry, to which he can respond, I’m only doing this because you won’t pass a bill. And since Democrats have worked just as hard to convince the public that Republicans are insanely obstructionist as Republicans have to convince the public that Obama is a tyrant, the president’s response isn’t hard to explain to people; they understand by now that Republicans are opposed to passing immigration reform. So the places where Republicans have been the most recalcitrant are those where Obama is most likely to be emboldened to move aggressively.

Vinik outlines some ways the president could tackle immigration without Congress. But rather than making an end run around the House GOP, Connor Simpson suggests Obama might actually be trying to force their hand:

Earlier Monday, the President sent a surprise request to Congress asking for roughly $2 billion to deal with the influx of children attempting to cross the border illegally from South America. While children from Mexico can be deported fairly easily, immigrants who travel from as far as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are much more difficult and expensive. The move will likely cause chaos on Capitol Hill, but could potentially force the House to finally deal with immigration   reform.

It’s a catch-22 for politicians:

vote to deport a bunch of children and solve a very real problem, or vote to deport a bunch of children and look heartless in the eyes of your constituents. Hard line immigration reform opponents will love it regardless.

Chait calls the House failure to act on immigration reform “a fascinating case study of a party unable to act on its recognized political self-interest”:

The GOP’s worst problem is that Obama’s unilateral relaxation of immigration enforcement will add a newer and more potent dimension to the immigration issue. No longer will Republicans merely have to promise to oppose reform legislation. They will have to promise to undo what Obama has done. …

And so Republicans may well find themselves in the position of watching their nominee pledging to prosecute or deport immigrant families or children pardoned or left alone by Obama. The only way their friends, neighbors, or relatives who happen to be legal citizens can spare them will be to vote for Clinton. It may have seemed that the Republicans’ standing with immigrant communities had sunk to a new low in 2012, but in 2016, things could actually get worse.

Jonathan Bernstein, on the other hand, argues that the stakes are not so dire for the Republicans in 2016 – or so they seem to believe, at least:

In the long run, the electoral danger of keeping immigration reform high on the agenda is that it could keep Hispanics in the Democratic camp for generations, in part by encouraging them to use ethnicity as their primary political identification. And if that happens, Republicans will risk turning into a long-term minority party. But the electoral effects are much murkier in 2016. That makes it even more difficult for pro-reform Republicans to make the case, particularly as politicians generally aren’t known for their long-term electoral thinking.

Now, on the policy merits, Chait (and Obama) have it right: the possibility of White House action has always made a compromise the best choice for Republicans if what they care about is policy substance. But this set of House Republicans, and the party they represent, isn’t known for putting policy substance over symbolism.

But Francis Wilkinson notes that this could all blow up in Obama’s face:

Obama is in a bind, and he won’t be escaping it soon. He promised that if the House didn’t act on immigration, he would. But if he eases deportations while thousands of alien kids are entering U.S. custody, he may well inspire a ferocity from House Republicans that we haven’t seen since the days of the debt-ceiling fiasco. Only this time, Republicans will point to Obama’s tardy response to a genuine crisis, rather than their own ideological make-believe, as the proximate cause. … By setting himself up as the alternative when and if legislation failed, Obama made himself a target of immigrant desires that he is almost certainly incapable of satisfying. He now faces a backlash from foes and friends alike.

Yglesias declares immigration reform no longer a “special” issue meriting bipartisan action. Now, he believes, “like other liberal priorities it’ll happen if Democrats win a sweep election but not otherwise”:

The more interesting question is what happens to Republicans. Will they simply cede the faction of the business community that’s hungry for immigrant labor to the Democratic coalition? Or will they push harder for a new formula — something like the SKILLS Act that would allow in more highly-skilled workers in exchange for slamming the door on family reunification for less-skilled (mostly Latin American) migrants even tighter — that would try to split up the existing interest group coalition for reform.

But whatever happens, it won’t be special. We’ll see continued trench warfare through executive action and judicial decisions as long as the legislative branches are divided. And then when one party or the other gains a breakthrough, some kind of reform will pass largely on a party-line vote.

Which is a bit odd, given the growing public consensus around liberalizing immigration policy. Although a Gallup poll last week found anti-immigration sentiment on the rise, Aaron Blake examines the long-term trends to find that this increase “looks more like a blip on the screen than a significant and lasting shift.” Two data points:

1) A May poll from the New York Times showed 46 percent of Americans thought all immigrants should be welcomed to the United States. That’s up from 33 percent in 2010, 24 percent in 2007 (the last time immigration reform failed) and around 20 percent in the mid-1990s. The percentage who say there should be no immigration has also dropped to 19 percent.

2) The same poll showed the percentage of Americans who say immigrants contribute to this country has risen significantly over the past three decades. While Americans in the 1980s and 1990s said immigrants were more likely to cause problems than contribute, it’s now 66-21 in favor of contributing. And the numbers continue to rise to this day.