Waiting for Republicans to Act on Immigration Is Pointless

Obama has strong moral, political, and pragmatic reasons to issue an executive order now.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

The metaphors are flying. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner said President Obama should not take executive action to limit deportations of undocumented immigrants because “when you play with matches, then you take the risk of burning yourself” and because “he will poison the well” when it comes to relations with Congress. Not to be outdone, presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that executive action would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

All of which suggests that up until now, the water has been potable and the bull friendly.

The truth is rather different. Ever since Obama became president, Republicans have been opposing his agenda militantly while periodically warning that if he pushes forward with it they’ll stop being so cooperative.

In his book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do, Robert Draper reports that on the night Obama was inaugurated, top House and Senate Republicans met to plot their strategy. They agreed, in Draper’s words, to maintain “united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies”—even though Obama had not yet outlined what those policies would be. As California Representative Kevin McCarthy, now the House majority leader, put it, “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill.” In Michael Grunwald’s book, The New New Deal, former Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich confirms that “If [Obama] was for it, we had to be against it” because “all he [McConnell] cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory.”

Sure enough, the following month 38 of the Senate’s 41 Republicans and every Republican in the House voted against Obama’s stimulus package, even though it contained far larger tax cuts, and far less actual stimulus, than progressives wanted. To the GOP, evidently, this constituted bipartisan magnanimity. Because two months later, top Republicans vowed that if the White House used the reconciliation process to pass health-care reform, the GOP would stop being so accommodating. “If they go down that road, I think the fur is going to fly,” warned Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune in April 2009. A year later, when the White House actually went through with the reconciliation plan, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski predicted that it would “disable our ability to work productively for the balance of this Congress.” Utah’s Orrin Hatch vowed, “It could be war.”

Obamacare’s passage contributed to the GOP’s Tea Party-powered victory in 2010 and the standoffs over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling that followed. But it did not “disable” Congress’s “ability to work productively,” because when it came to the agenda on which Obama was elected, congressional Republicans had never shown any inclination to work productively to begin with.

That’s still the case today. If Obama “acts unilaterally on his own,” Boehner warned last week, “there will be no chance of immigration reform moving in this Congress.” This from a man who, as Jonathan Capehart recently pointed out, saw the Senate pass immigration reform in June 2013 with 68 votes and still refused to schedule a vote in the House, even though similar legislation would have passed there easily.

Boehner’s claim that Republicans are just dying to pass immigration reform, if only Obama abstains from executive action, not only contradicts his past behavior. It contradicts his past statements. Back in June, Boehner said he had told the president, “The American people and their elected officials don’t trust him to enforce the law as written. Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue.” Since the chances of Republicans ever trusting Obama on immigration are zero, Boehner was essentially declaring that the chances of a Republican congress passing immigration reform are zero too. From Paul Ryan to Kevin McCarthy to Reince Priebus, other top Republicans have said much the same thing. The Washington Post declared this summer, “The two-year attempt to push immigration reform through Congress is effectively dead and unlikely to be revived until after President Obama leaves office.”

That’s why Boehner’s effort to hold congressional immigration reform hostage if Obama acts unilaterally is so absurd. Boehner killed the hostage long ago. Now he’s hoping that if he pretends it’s still alive, no one will notice the corpse lying on the floor.

The rationale for Obama acting unilaterally to give millions of undocumented Americans the chance to become citizens, and thus keep their families from being ripped apart, is morally compelling. He won election and reelection on that platform. Legislation accomplishing that enjoys strong public support, including from voters in last week’s midterms. It passed the Senate easily and would pass the House as well if Boehner allowed a vote.

The political logic is compelling too. If Hispanics don’t turn out in large numbers, and vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, Democrats can’t win. Last week they did not. In key states, Latino turnout dropped, as did the percentage who voted Democratic. While it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons, there’s circumstantial evidence that Obama’s decision to delay unilateral action on immigration reform played a role. Forty-five percent of Latino voters say immigration is their top priority. Some immigration-reform groups had responded to Obama’s delay by urging their supporters to boycott the midterms. And last week Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez, one of immigration reform’s congressional champions, baldly accused the White House of having “repress[ed] the vote in the Latino community” by not acting.

But there’s a broader reason Obama must act on immigration. Since Democrats are the pro-government party, government dysfunction hurts Democrats disproportionately. If a Democratic president can’t show Americans that government can improve their lives, then fewer Americans will see the point in electing another one. To win the presidency, it is crucial that Hillary Clinton be able to say that eight years of a Democratic president brought an economic recovery, health care for millions of Americans and a path to citizenship for millions of the undocumented—and that eight more years will bring even more tangible gains.

Boehner’s metaphor is wrong. By acting on immigration reform, Obama won’t be starting a forest fire. He’ll be keeping alive a flame.