Let them do another shutdown: Why Republicans are killing themselves on immigration

It may stoke the Tea Party’s gleeful rage, but will only serve to alienate Latinos -- and forefeit the White House

Published November 21, 2014 5:33PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, John Boehner                                                              (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
Ted Cruz, John Boehner (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

Last night, during a prime-time speech that none of the major television networks carried (save Univision), President Barack Obama laid out his plan to use executive authority to give up to 4 million undocumented immigrants work permits and a reprieve from deportation.

“Millions of immigrants in every state, of every race and nationality still live here illegally,” the president said. “Tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic … It’s not who we are as Americans.”

Coming on the heels of the Democrats’ midterm shellacking, the president’s unilateral action — which he delayed until after the election in the hope of helping vulnerable members of his party — may seem politically risky. Republicans have wasted no time in denouncing Obama’s actions as lawless and imperial (Sen. Ted Cruz even took to quoting Cicero) and have vowed to defund the administration’s plan.

But Obama’s move is a political no-brainer given Republican obstructionism. Not only will it cement the Democrats’ standing with Latino voters and spotlight immigration as the 2016 presidential race gains steam; the resulting Republican freakout will only redound to the president’s benefit.

Under the administration’s plan, undocumented parents of U.S. citizens who have been in the country for at least five years can obtain temporary work permits and are guaranteed a reprieve from deportation by registering with the Department of Homeland Security. This is a similar deal to the one currently offered to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as “Dreamers,” under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Republicans have tried to repeal DACA, and similarly decried the administration’s current plan as “executive amnesty.”

If the debt-ceiling fiasco and the government shutdowns of the past four years have shown us anything, it’s that Republicans will cut off their nose (or the country’s) to spite Obama. Republican leaders know the White House is counting on them to overplay their hand, but like a parent with an enraged child at the supermarket, no amount of hushing will prove sufficient to contain the upcoming tantrum.

Let Republicans shut down the government yet again, try to impeach the president, or bring another frivolous lawsuit against the administration. These moves are supported by the party’s conservative base, but are highly unpopular with the public. Let Republicans like Rep. Michele Bachmann — who said the Obama’s order would allow “millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language” — air their racist, anti-immigrant views. This may stoke the Tea Party’s gleeful rage, but it will only serve to alienate Latinos, without whom the party’s presidential prospects are doomed.

Republicans warned that executive action from the president on immigration would preclude them from working on a bill. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said it would “poison the well and make it much, much harder if not impossible for us to make serious progress on our broken immigration system."

But let’s be real: Republicans weren’t going to work with Obama anyway. Since the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration-reform bill last summer, Republicans in the House have had ample opportunity to help craft the immigration system of the future. They have neither taken up the Senate bill nor passed a single one of their own; there’s little reason to think, with a newly installed majority in Congress, they are any more eager to work with the president.

And as Obama pointed out in his address Thursday, if Republicans don’t like Obama’s order, they can override it with legislation. “To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” the president said.

For years, Obama’s attempts to placate and negotiate with Republicans have had those of us on the left pulling out our hair. It’s been a long time coming, — years — but it seems the president has finally realized that members of a party who are willing to sink the country’s credit rating and endanger the economic recovery are not good-faith negotiators.

The basic fact is this: Given the last four years as evidence, there is absolutely no incentive for Obama to negotiate, to try to find common ground or compromise. Republicans have shown their overarching goal is to oppose the president at every turn no matter what the policy; they have abandoned the give-and-take of transactional politics with ideologically driven obstructionism. Quite simply, they’ve given the president nothing left to lose.

By Gabriel Arana

Gabriel Arana is a contributing writer at Salon. You can contact him by visiting his website.

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