Inflammatory as it's been, the debate over unaccompanied Central American children crossing the U.S. border is only the warm-up for an approaching immigration confrontation with even greater stakes.
Regardless of how Congress handles his request for more border resources, President Obama is moving toward a historic—and explosive—executive order that will provide legal status to a significant number of the estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. One senior White House official says that while "what's happening at the border will provide atmospherics for the [president's] decision," it won't stop him from acting on the undocumented—probably before the midterm elections. The resulting collision over Obama's expected action could lastingly define both the Democratic and Republican parties for the burgeoning Hispanic population.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has followed a consistent strategy on immigration. He's toughened enforcement and aggressively pursued deportation, looking (as he acknowledged in a 2011 El Paso speech) to blunt the conservative argument that the U.S. must secure the border before addressing the undocumented. Obama's hard line, combined with the economic slowdown, has tightened the net. During George W. Bush's two terms, the best estimate has it, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. jumped by about 3 million; under Obama, there's been no increase. But while the tougher enforcement has angered liberal groups, it has failed to move House Republicans, 80 percent of whom represent districts that are whiter than the national average. After the Senate passed bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship in 2013, House Republicans shelved it—just as they did a similar bipartisan bill Bush helped shoulder through the Senate in 2006.