Tablet Opinion

Editorial: It’s time for Congress to act on immigration

It’s usually considered a good thing when U.S. presidents make good on their threats.

But President Barack Obama’s decision Thursday to extend legal safe haven to as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants via executive order could have consequences that ultimately undermine the intended policy goals of his action.

Anger over what some are calling Obama’s illegal order is understandable, particularly given the president’s own admission as recently as last year that he lacked the requisite authority to take such measures.

Texas Attorney General and Governor-elect Greg Abbott already has said the state will be petitioning the courts to halt the president’s action.

Abbott is within his rights to file suit — the order will certainly have a significant impact on the state he is about to lead. (For example, will the Lone Star State be required to issue drivers licenses to those affected by the temporary legalization?)

Still, it’s unlikely that Texas will get any relief through litigation, at least not immediately.

But whether or not the president has exceeded his constitutional authority — a question better left to presidential scholars and legal experts — the political fallout over the order will have equally significant implications.

The president said he decided to act because Congress has not: “And to those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.”

It’s true that Congress has failed to pass comprehensive reform, first in 2007 and again this year. That is inexcusable.

Yet Mr. Obama’s actions last week may threaten the chances of such an achievement.

That is, if Republicans take the bait.

“One of the saddest parts about what the president is going to do is he will poison the well and make it much, much harder if not impossible for us to make serious progress on our broken immigration system,” said Sen. John Cornyn on Wednesday, echoing the words of other Republican congressional leaders.

Cornyn and his GOP cohorts will hold majorities in both houses of Congress come January — a position they haven’t enjoyed since 2006. It will be impossible for the president to pursue his domestic agenda as a lame duck without their cooperation.

But they already view Obama’s executive action as a proverbial middle finger and will use it to justify efforts to work against and around him.

Rumors of another government shut-down have circulated but largely have been quashed by GOP congressional leaders. They would be wise to keep that option off the table.

Still, despite the party’s recent history of intransigence on the issue, the political reality is that Republicans will have to address immigration policy in the next two years if they want to maintain control of Congress.

Most serious lawmakers agree that things must be done to fix the immigration system. And most leaders — even many of those in Texas, with a few notable exceptions — agree that rounding up the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and deporting them isn’t possible, let alone practical.

In substance, many conservatives may even agree with the president’s executive order, since there is widespread acknowledgment that keeping families together is preferable.

But Obama’s action is by no means comprehensive. It does nothing to deter more immigrants from illegally entering the U.S. It is also temporary, meaning a thorough and lasting solution must be reached soon.

In January, Republicans laid out their principles on immigration reform. Even with party divisions, they should be able to pass legislation that would prioritize visas for immigrants with math and science skills, establish a temporary guest worker program, implement a more thorough employment verification system and expand student visas.

Republicans tend to favor a piecemeal approach, and there is no doubt their first effort would address interior and border enforcement before entertaining mechanisms for legalization.

Still, if passing several bills instead of one will help achieve desired reform, the president should get on board.

The GOP has made clear it does not favor a “special pathway” to citizenship for anyone who illegally entered the country. However, Republicans have presented options that would grant legal status for many of the 11 million people in the U.S. under such circumstances — essentially what Obama’s executive order has done.

Now it’s time for Congress to act.