GOP's unseemly immigration advantage: Why the White House is in a bind

New polls reveal why a hard-line GOP poses both short- and long-term political problems... for the White House

Published July 18, 2014 2:32PM (EDT)

Marsha Blackburn, Louie Gohmert                        (AP/Chris Usher/Carolyn Kaster)
Marsha Blackburn, Louie Gohmert (AP/Chris Usher/Carolyn Kaster)

Anyone who was expecting a timely and efficient legislative solution to the humanitarian crisis at the southern border will be sorely disappointed and should also start paying better attention to how Congress works. Republicans and Democrats in the House can’t agree on a compromise package to provide emergency funds to deal with the tens of thousands of immigrant minors who’ve crossed the border, and John Boehner told reporters yesterday that he was not confident an agreement could be hammered out before the end of July, when Congress adjourns for the August recess. Apparently whatever sense of urgency the crisis fostered is not sufficient to delay the start of Congress’ month-long vacation.

The dispute comes down to money and a 2008 law that prevents the immediate deportations of undocumented immigrant minors from Central America. Republicans want to give the administration less money than it’s asking for and make amendments to the law to speed up the deportation process. Democrats want to meet the administration’s funding request and (generally) want to leave the law untouched.

Caught in the middle of all this is the White House. And going by new polling numbers from Pew, that’s a really bad place to be. The topline number from Pew is bad enough for President Obama; just 28 percent of respondents approve of his handling of the border crisis. But when you dig through the poll you start finding more problems for the administration, both in the short term and the long term.

The 2008 law that the two parties are fighting over requires that undocumented immigrant minors from Central America be transferred to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services and, if possible, released into the custody of relatives to await an immigration hearing. Republicans want to amend the law so that the kids can be deported back to their countries of origin more quickly. Democrats (with some exceptions) want to leave the law alone, arguing that the kids left countries like Honduras and El Salvador because they’re just a hair’s breadth from becoming failed-state war zones.

Pew asked registered voters whether the law should be amended even if it meant that some kids who would otherwise be eligible for asylum get sent back, and 53 percent said yes, while just 39 percent want to stick with the current policy. Notably, self-identified Democrats were evenly split on the issue, with 46 percent favoring amendments and 47 percent opposed.

The White House has expressed its openness to amending the law, and thus far is not bowing to pressure from liberals and Hispanic allies to take those changes off the table. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told Obama yesterday that they would oppose any deal that undid existing protections for the undocumented minors, and Obama, per Rep. Raul Grijalva, “made no commitment outright ... to say, ‘We’re going to be with you in resisting the changing of that law.’”

So in the short term, the White House is stuck. A majority of the public wants the 2008 statute amended, but he can’t push that option without losing the support of Democratic allies in Congress. And that’s a problem because a drawn-out public battle over the border crisis could end up having a negative impact on the party’s long-term immigration goals.

According to Pew: “The public remains supportive of a broad revamp of the immigration system to allow people in the U.S. illegally to gain legal status if they meet certain requirements. But overall support for a path to legal status has slipped to 68% from 73% in February.” The drop was most prominent among Republicans, but even Democrats and Independents are less supportive of pathways to legal status now than they were five months ago. Support for granting undocumented immigrants a pathway to full citizenship has also fallen from 46 percent to 40 percent.

The Republicans obviously don’t give a damn about immigration reform or how the public will view them for trying to deport as many people as is humanly possible. Pew found that generally speaking, the Republicans are shifting closer to the Tea Party position on immigration: “More Republicans and Republicans leaners who agree with the Tea Party now say undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally.” One could argue that it doesn’t matter what the administration does since the Republicans are moving further and further to the right on immigration and won’t support any policy option short of maximum deportations.

But for right now it seems like the White House is deliberately keeping their options open and refusing to indulge in partisan entrenchment because they want to nurse whatever hope, however feeble it may be, of arriving at a quick resolution to the border crisis. As the Pew numbers show, the sooner it’s dealt with, the better.

By Simon Maloy

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