President Barack Obama acted against inaction Thursday. In a TV address to the nation, he announced an executive order that will shield from deportation up to 5 million people who are in the United States illegally.
For a few years, it will keep families from being pulled apart and focus immigration resources on finding and deporting undocumented immigrants whose criminal backgrounds pose an actual threat to the nation.
It’s a needed, sensible and overdue step. But that didn’t stop congressional Republicans from condemning it. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the president’s action defied the law and was akin “to acting like a monarch.” Cruz and other tea party Republicans are talking about cutting off funding to stop Obama’s order from taking effect.
A forced action
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Obama’s action is perfectly legal, but not what he wanted. He had hoped the Republican-controlled House would approve a comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June 2013 with 14 Republicans joining the unanimous Democratic support. The House refused. Far from acting on his own impulse, Obama was forced to act by the House Republicans’ intransigence.
The threat of Republican backlash caused the president to act narrowly. The Senate bill would have addressed the status of as many as 8 million of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. But the executive action’s sweep was limited to stay clearly within the president’s legal authority. It will cover 4 million people who would qualify for deferred deportations because of their length of time in the United States or their family ties. Another 1 million would get protection through other means.
Republicans did not object when Obama used his executive authority to step up deportations, to a record level, more than 2 million since 2009. Now they’ve become outraged by his effort to help people caught in immigration limbo and living with fear that deportation could tear husband from wife and parents from children. Given that it would be enormously cruel and a deep blow to the economy to attempt the deportation of 11 million people, some action must be taken to address the status of those here and improve the process for future immigrants.
Obama has taken his action. Now Republicans must choose their reaction. One obvious response would be to produce their own immigration bill, pass it when they take control of the full Congress in January and meet enough of Obama’s concerns that he can sign it.
That scenario would be a sign of a healthy democratic system. But Republicans are likely to take an approach that has become too familiar. They’ll demonize the president and vow to obstruct his action on immigration. That opposition will be deepened by the maneuvering of at least three GOP senators who are likely to run for president in 2016.
A choice of obstruction ultimately will obstruct only Republicans. It will drain away the momentum of their party’s big win in the midterm elections and slow progress on other issues the party favors, including changes in trade policy and tax reform.
Perhaps enough Republicans will realize the self-defeating effects of railing against the president and delaying a needed change in immigration laws. That is now the drama about comings and goings. It’s not whether undocumented immigrants will stay in this country. It’s whether Republican zealots will come to their senses.