The elections gave Republicans an opportunity to move forward on immigration reform if they choose to do so. With wider margins in the House and control of the U.S. Senate, the GOP could decide to risk the ire of the anti-immigrant lobby by pushing forward immigration bills that would provide higher numbers of visas for legal immigrants, roll over nearly a quarter million unused visas from previous decades to resolve some of the backlog in demand, and give at least some unauthorized immigrants the chance to earn legal status. But to do so, the incoming Republican leadership would have to work with Democrats to secure enough votes for passage–and there’s the rub. Even if major ideological differences over how best to fashion our immigration laws could be overcome, politics will make compromise difficult.
Democrats see Hispanic anger over the failure to reform immigration laws and create a path to legalization for those unauthorized immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S. more than a decade as a political plus. In recent years, they’ve managed to stoke that anger in their favor come election time. But it didn’t work out quite as they hoped in November. More than a third of Hispanics voted for Republican candidates in the midterm elections, according to an analysis by Pew Research–returning the Hispanic vote to its historical average. Hispanic turnout was also down. As a result, critics have warned that the president must act unilaterally if the Democratic Party is to keep more Hispanics from drifting away from the party.
This week, President Obama made clear that he will move to legalize the status of some longterm undocumented workers with family and community ties. While this is no doubt comfort to those who live in constant fear of deportation, if the president does so unilaterally the chances for legal immigration reform will evaporate. Given the fact that illegal immigration can only be effectively dealt with over the long run by changing our legal immigration laws to admit more legal residents and temporary workers, the president’s actions will simply keep this issue alive for the foreseeable future. Democrats may see this as a winner politically–but it is bad policy and legally suspect.
The test for Republicans will be if they take the bait and move to undo the president’s actions. Some have already called for cutting funds to implement any executive order and legal challenges to try to stop the president from granting legal status. In August the GOP-controlled House voted to strip legal protections from the Dreamers already granted deferred action by a previous order. Hardliners within the party will argue for tougher laws against illegal immigration and more internal enforcement–which they hope will mean deporting a substantial portion of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already here. Doing so, however, would not only cause great harm to the economy–it would deal a devastating blow to some industries–but would lessen the GOP’s chances to retain control of Congress much less win the White House in 2016