SAHIL KAPUR – MAY 5, 2014, 11:25 AM EDT
Barack Obama wants to be the president who signs comprehensive immigration reform into law. But in the absence of congressional action he has signaled he'll act on his own and slow deportations for people living in the country illegally without criminal records.
As the Republican-led House stonewalls legislative action, insisting the president can't be trusted to enforce the law, Obama's pivot to executive action sets a dangerous political trap for the GOP. They'll feel compelled to oppose his steps to make life easier for undocumented immigrants -- they're already begun to do just that. But that will further alienate their party with Hispanics, the country's fastest-growing demographic, for whom immigration reform is a high priority.
Even worse, if Obama acts on his own Republicans won't share in any of the credit. Democrats will reap political gains with the Latinos -- whom GOP strategists insist the party must win over to stay competitive on the presidential stage -- in 2016 and beyond while Republicans take the side of those calling for deporting unauthorized immigrants.
"When Republicans say the President must do more to enforce the law, we hear it as a lame excuse for their own inaction and a call for the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants," said Frank Sharry, who runs the pro-reform group America's Voice. "Needless to say, the hole the GOP has dug itself with Latino, Asian American, and immigrant voters gets deeper every time they say it."
The dilemma isn't lost on Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who has made repeated overtures toward bringing up reform in recent months -- only to get thwarted by his right flank each time. Two weeks ago his frustrations got the better of him as he publicly made fun of his House GOP colleagues for being too afraid to act on reform. Conservatives erupted, and Boehner backtracked, reverting to his position that the House's inaction was Obama's fault.
In an interview Sunday with Univision, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) was repeatedly pressed by Jorge Ramos, an influential voice with Hispanics, on the House's inaction and the GOP's "excuse" that it's Obama's fault. Goodlatte held firm: "I am blaming the President." When Ramos suggested Republicans are hurting their image with Latinos, Goodlatte responded, "We’re not talking about image. We're talking about trust. The issue is trust."
"I don't want to do anything that doesn't have the strong support of the American people," said Goodlatte, who has jurisdiction over immigration policy. "But what I do want to do and I know they want to see is not only enforcement at the border, but also enforcement in the interior of the United States."
The House, led by Goodlatte, has begun to investigate the Obama administration's actions on deportations. Recently 22 Republican senators wrote a letter to the president saying the executive actions he is considering "demonstrate an astonishing disregard for the Constitution, the rule of law, and the rights of American citizens and legal residents."
In the near-term, the issue is unlikely to hurt Republicans because the upcoming mid-term is expected to be a low-turnout affair where the electorate is disproportionately old, white and conservative. The fundamentals favor the GOP in the 2014 election. The long-run is another matter.
John Feehery, a top Republican operative turned lobbyist, says his party will lose elections in 2016, 2020, and 2024 if it doesn't embrace reform now.
"I think they should pass limited immigration reform in a piece by piece fashion as outlined by Boehner," Feehery said. "Anything else will be political disaster for the GOP."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), an author of the Senate-passed immigration bill, recently offered to address GOP concerns about Obama's so-called lawlessness by having reform take effect in 2017, once he's out of office. Boehner rebuffed his proposal. On Thursday, in a floor speech, Schumer previewed how Democrats will exploit the issue if Republicans don't play ball.
"House Republicans have handed the gavel of leadership on immigration to far-right extremists like Congressman Steve King," he said, noting that GOP leaders brought up and passed King's bill to require deportations of young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.