Did Obama just provide the opening for a border-security bill?

It might take a little political jujitsu to pull it off, but Barack Obama may have inadvertently opened the door for Republicans to move forward in their incremental approach to immigration reform. Until now, Obama and his fellow Democrats have argued that the humanitarian aspects of the current illegal immigrants in the US demanded a comprehensive solution rather than a deliberative and sequential strategy that could make sure that one piece worked before adding another to the mix. Republicans are pushing back hard on Obama’s declaration of executive amnesty last night, but it might have removed the argument for a comprehensive plan — especially if it produces the kind of results that Marc Ambinder predicted yesterday:


It will make America more of a magnet for undocumented immigrants. Come to America, find a job that Americans don’t want to do, live in the shadows for a while, and wait for political pressure to boil over, forcing the president at the time to grant you some form of documented status. In 1986, President Reagan granted a form of amnesty for immigrants who came to the country before 1982. He actually used the word “amnesty.” Reagan. A big difference: Congress agreed with him. But it continues a precedent that is hard to explain away to those who are struggling to escape poverty, crime, and desolation elsewhere.

“Illegal” immigration will probably increase in the near-term. It has, every time any form of amnesty has become law. Why? Politics and money, as Brad Plumer explains here. Congress did not fund border enforcement as well as they should have in 1986, and many of the employment provisions, which were designed to reduce the magnetic lure of the job market, were watered down to please various constituencies. Executive discretion dealing only with status issues will create unforeseen complications for employers today.

In other words, Obama’s announcement last night will not only do little to solve the actual problems with illegal immigration, it will clearly make them worse. Rather than ensuring a rational process for dealing with the current population of “undocumented workers,” this declaration and its inevitable consequences will make sorting people out later during any normalization process more difficult. It’s exactly the same dynamic that occurred in 1986, except that Congress created it through law rather than a President doing so through an edict.


That makes border security an even more acute problem than it has been already. The new Republican Congress will have to address the situation immediately in order to head off some of these problems, assuming it doesn’t reach emergency status in the weeks prior to the start of the next session. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) already has a border-security bill ready to go in the first week of January, which will now take on a much more urgent track:

Johnson outlined his plans in an interview with The Associated Press amid growing Republican complaints over Obama’s plans to act on his own by year’s end to address the faulty immigration system. Obama’s plans, which could remove the threat of deportation for millions, are emerging as a major point of conflict with congressional Republicans who made big gains in last week’s midterm elections.

“Regardless of what President Obama does, I’m going to move forward with a very strong border security bill,” Johnson said. “I hope President Obama doesn’t take that executive action because I think for many people that will poison the well and certainly make it more difficult to solve the immigration problem.”

Johnson said he would move his border bill “as quickly as we can” once the new Congress convenes. He said he supports solving the immigration system one issue at a time — the position of most Republicans.


Thanks to Obama jumping the gun and supposedly addressing the humanitarian concerns of those already here, Republicans have the opening to argue that the serial approach is now the best way to solve the problem. That is what I meant by political jujitsu. In jujitsu, one does not confront an opponent’s strength head on, but uses it against him. Obama clearly wanted to make himself look like the compassionate actor in this debate, and Republicans the heartless, cruel nativists. Instead of trying to fight that battle, make Obama own it and bypass it for the real battle the GOP wants to win on border security. Make Democrats vote against a border security bill, and make Obama veto one while his own amnesty remains in place.

How many Senate Democrats would be willing to sustain that veto before the 2016 election? I’m betting not too many. But Republicans have a perfect opportunity to turn the debate in that direction now and force Obama and his shrinking number of allies on Capitol Hill to go on the record.

Ruben Navarette wonders what exactly Obama won last night, anyway. He’s pretty certain that undocumented immigrants didn’t win anything substantial, calling out the “inescapable contradiction” in Obama’s plan:

On the one hand, Obama tried to calm fears that he was handing out “amnesty” by playing down what was happening; this isn’t permanent legal status, he insisted, merely a temporary deferment of deportation for folks who meet the qualifications. 

“This deal does not apply to anyone who has come to this country recently,” Obama said. “It does not apply to anyone who might come to America illegally in the future. It does not grant citizenship or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive. Only Congress can do that. All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.”

Yet, on the other hand, and for most of the speech, Obama painted a rosy picture of a grand bargain in which undocumented immigrants who had contributed much to America could “get right with the law” and change their lives for the better.

“If you’ve been in America more than five years,” he said. “If you have children who are American citizens or illegal residents. If you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation.”

But how exactly does an undocumented immigrant get right with the law without changing his legal status? Either what the president is proposing has the power to change people’s lives, or it doesn’t. Which is it?


Like I wrote last night, I can’t imagine that too many of the people Obama targeted (as people who “pick our fruit and make our beds”) will feel comfortable taking advantage of Obama’s personal — and very temporary — beneficence.

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