On Monday, a federal judge in Texas blocked President Obama’s latest executive actions on immigration. This is a short-term win for Republicans, who rightly believe the president lacked the authority to act unilaterally. But it does nothing to change the underlying political dynamic — Republicans have won a battle, but they’re still at risk of losing the immigration war.
The contrast between Democrats and Republicans is stark and getting starker every day. A Democratic president is fighting to shield unauthorized immigrants from deportation. If it weren’t for the court order, an additional 600,000 Dreamers who came to the U.S. illegally as children could have applied for legal status starting Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress headed into their sixth week trying to pass a measure that would pave the way for deporting not just the Dreamers, but all 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
It’s a contrast sure to haunt the GOP through November 2016 and beyond.
The irony, particularly bitter for Republicans, is that it’s not an accurate picture of the party. Most GOP representatives in Congress support relief for Dreamers, and many, perhaps most, support legal status for unauthorized immigrants.
But congressional Republicans are caught in a trap. They’re fighting for a policy most of them don’t believe in as a way, they think, to strike back at the president — but in the end they’re hurting themselves more than they could ever hurt Obama.
Ten years ago, when the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed a draconian immigration enforcement bill named for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), most Republican lawmakers supported its provisions criminalizing immigrants and opening the door to mass deportations.
But the GOP has undergone a sea change since 2005: a slow, steady, bottom-up rethinking of the immigration issue. Today, not just national figures like Jeb Bush but most rank-and-file Republicans in Congress understand the need for far-reaching immigration reform. Last June, when reform advocates conducted an informal whip count, they found more than half of House Republicans prepared to vote for a path to legal status for some unauthorized immigrants.
So how did Republicans get trapped? Obama set the snare, but the GOP walked in of its own free will.
Obama surely knew that the immigration executive orders he issued in November would infuriate Republicans. He could have sent the same proposal up to Capitol Hill as a bill: legal status rather than citizenship for some but not all of those here illegally. That might just have passed if it had come up for a vote last year.
But that would have taken immigration off the table as a wedge issue, leveling the playing field between Republicans and Democrats. So instead, the president acted unilaterally, knowing the GOP would see that as a brazen abuse of authority — a violation the party had to fight, no matter what the consequences.
Republicans are right: The president overreached. But being right isn’t always enough in politics — you also have to win the war of perceptions. And right now, the GOP is losing that war — big time. Americans aren’t hearing the message about the president’s abuse of authority. They’re hearing the GOP say it hates immigrants.
What can Republicans do? How do they get out of the trap?
Turn the tables on Obama. Come together as a party and pass some constructive immigration measures, then send those bills to the president and let him look like the obstacle to progress.
This wouldn’t have to be comprehensive immigration reform. It wouldn’t even have to include legal status for unauthorized immigrants. A few small steps to fix the legal immigration system would signal that Republicans know there’s a problem and want to be part of solving it — that they recognize the benefits immigrants bring, especially legal immigrants.
An ideal package would start with enforcement, on the border and in the workplace. But it would also include some answers for what’s broken. Among the possibilities: streamlined visas for skilled professionals, some relief for produce growers who rely on migrant workers, and something to address the needs of employers in other sectors who depend on less-skilled immigrants to keep their businesses open and growing — perhaps a small temporary-worker program for cities and counties where the economy has bounced back to full employment.
The president would mock all these measures if they landed on his desk alone, without some form of legalization for unauthorized immigrants. But if he vetoed a bill, he’d be the problem — Democrats rather than Republicans would be the Party of No.
Of course, some conservatives on talk radio and elsewhere would also mock a change of course by Republicans — to them, any effort to get out of the trap would betray a lack of resolve. But when the course the party is on isn’t working, sticking to it is just foolish, not brave or principled.
Republicans don’t need to stand down. What they need to do is fight smarter. The good news: There’s a better way to beat the president and vote for what you believe on immigration — to do the right thing and get credit for it from voters looking for lawmakers who can come through with solutions.
Tamar Jacoby, a registered Republican, is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners in favor of immigration reform.