President Barack Obama used his post-election news conference Wednesday to make two promises.
First, to cooperate more with Republicans, and second to drive a political wedge into the new Republican majority before it even takes office.
The second part is effectively what he meant when he said that he’d act unilaterally to ease life for potentially millions of undocumented immigrants.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned Obama not to move independently, “like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
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The politics of immigration have changed dramatically since 2013, when the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill balancing a path to citizenship with the billions in border-security theater required to obtain 68 votes.
Led by Republican Reps. Steve King of Iowa and a network of anti-immigration groups, the party’s anti-immigrant wing reasserted itself, not only spooking Boehner into scuttling the Senate bill, but also passing legislation in the House to end Obama’s executive action enabling young undocumented immigrants — aka “Dreamers” — to live and work legally in the United States.
Now Obama says he will extend a similar amnesty (a gentle word rendered toxic by anti-immigrant forces) to others, perhaps including undocumented family members of Dreamers. Presuming he follows through, the move will produce outrage among Republicans.
But it will also very likely split the aggressive anti-immigrant Republican wing from the insecure “Can’t we just put this issue behind us?” caucus.
The first group considers immigrants both an existential threat to American identity and a priceless opportunity for demagogy. The latter group, hoping to win a presidential election in 2016, will be balanced precariously between expressing anger at Obama and wondering exactly where the point of no return is for Hispanic voters.
The existence of some 11 million humans without documentation inside the U.S. is not like other issues.
If Republicans refuse to pass an infrastructure bill, it’s bad for the U.S. economy. But there isn’t a vast population or underground economy of illegal infrastructure.
However, if 11 million people cannot have their existence legally sanctioned, what happens? They can be ignored, or they can be deported.
Mass deportation of settled families is too cruelly stupid even for the majority of House Republicans, in addition to being logistically impossible.
That leaves the status quo: ignoring undocumented immigrants as they go about their lives.
Obama will be able to point out that the Republican plan comes down to maintaining a broken status quo.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials for Bloomberg View.