It should come as no surprise that critics of President Obama's deportation deferrals for undocumented youth are taking their complaints to court.
But the battle takes on a broader political dimension when the lead plaintiff's attorney also happens to be the most prominent voice behind the Republican National Committee's immigration platform. What's more, the financial backers of the lawsuit are avid proponents of reducing immigration writ large for the sake of American jobs.
Sounds like a GOP campaign sound bite, doesn't it?
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a notable immigration hardliner, is representing 10 Homeland Security Department immigration agents who say the administration's "deferred action" for illegal-immigrant young adults prevents them from fulfilling their oath to uphold the law. That lawsuit was filed on Thursday in a federal court in Texas. The lead plaintiff, Chris Crane, is also president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, an agent union of sorts. Crane said the uncertainty about how agents should book and detain unauthorized immigrants has caused at least one suspension of an agent and low morale. "We have no choice. We've got to take care of our officers," he said in a telephone press conference.
In June, Obama announced a new program under which undocumented youth who have lived in the United States for much of their lives can apply for two-year deferrals from deportation. Republicans protested loudly, saying the president exceeded his authority. Administration officials contend that the action was necessary because Congress has stalled on the "Dream Act," which would legalize eligible teens.
Almost everyone involved in the deferral program — either in fighting it or promoting it — tries to say it isn't about politics; it's just about doing what's right. Kobach insisted on Thursday that any administration, regardless of political party, does not have the right to flout executive statute. American Immigration Council Executive Director Benjamin Johnson dashed out a response statement calling the lawsuit "nothing more than an intra-branch policy dispute."
But there is no way to put legal blinders on an issue of vast importance to Hispanics, even as the campaign of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is trying to court that all-important voting bloc. Romney is doing worse among Hispanic voters than any Republican nominee since Bob Dole in 1996. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released this week pegged Romney's share of the Hispanic vote at 28 percent. Immigration advocacy groups like America's Voice have reveled in Kobach's prominent role inside the Romney camp as a way of telling Hispanics that Republicans are not their friends.
Kobach has spent much of the week in Tampa preparing for the Republican National Convention. A whip-smart attorney, he effectively ruled over the committee's deliberations on voter identification and immigration. When it came to Obama's deportation deferral program, Kobach said on Thursday that GOP delegates were concerned about it but they did not spend a lot of time deliberating about it. The Republican platform on immigration decries the administration's "backdoor amnesty program unrecognized in law" in reference to the program.
Without protest and little discussion, the platform committee also agreed to Kobach's suggestion to toughen the party's immigration plank by calling for mandatory electronic verification of workers, a border fence, and an end to "sanctuary cities" and in-state tuition for illegal immigrant college students.
The lawsuit, meanwhile, is being funded by NumbersUSA, a grassroots organization that advocates for cracking down on immigration violations by undocumented aliens and employers alike. NumbersUSA sees immigration as an employment issue, arguing that migrant labor has taken over jobs and industries that used to be occupied by Americans. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's a common conservative refrain — don't be friendly to immigration in a down economy. The first sentence of the GOP immigration plank reflects this sentiment: "The greatest asset of the American economy is the American worker."
"This is a law-and-order issue, but it's much larger than that," NumbersUSA President Roy Beck said of the lawsuit. He added that "whole occupations" in the United States have been taken over by foreign labor, like dry walling, meat cutting, and roofing. The administration's directive on undocumented youth "threatens immigration agents in terms of their ability to perform their duties to enforce immigration laws, but it is also a threat against the American workers," he said.
The Romney camp is aware of the lawsuit but has not commented on it. It doesn't need to. Immigration hardliners like Kobach and NumbersUSA are doing their work for them. Republican lawmakers also are touting the lawsuit as a way to trample on Obama. "It is a sad day when our nation's law-enforcement officers are left with no recourse but to file suit against the administration and its political appointees," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
The only question remaining is whether Hispanics will buy line that the bluster isn't political. Or that it isn't about them.