For Republicans, it’s now or never on immigration reform

The conventional wisdom holds that there’s no urgency for Republicans to act this year on immigration, because Latinos don’t matter in midterm elections and Republicans can wait until next year, when they may control the Senate and exert more influence over reform legislation. This is almost certainly wrong.

Today John Boehner said it will be “difficult” to move on immigration reform, because many Republicans distrust Obama. This is being treated as a big deal, but it isn’t even remotely surprising. It’s likely Boehner is just trying to calm angry conservatives, to give GOP leaders more space to develop House GOP proposals. That effort may founder later, but if it does, it will have absolutely nothing to do with anything he said today.

But since folks insist on pretending this is a major development, it’s worth reiterating that waiting may actually be worse for Republicans than acting this year.

Frank Sharry, the head of the pro-immigrant America’s Voice, sketched out one scenario that could be awaiting Republicans if they decide not to act now.

In 2015, Obama could come under withering pressure from immigration groups to take executive action on behalf of some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently here. Such a move wouldn’t be about granting citizenship; it could be an expansion of the executive action he took in 2012 — temporarily deferring the deportation of DREAMers — to other classes of the 11 million. There areĀ reasons to think this would be legally hard to do, but expanding it at least to some degree is theoretically possible. Advocates believe he’d have little choice but to try to do something like this next year if reform fails again.

“He’ll come under withering pressure to act,” Sharry tells me. “And of course he’ll move by executive action. He doesn’t want his legacy to reflect the fact that he deported more people than any other president. He’ll have no choice.”

If that happens, Sharry continues, you could hear some on the right begin to agitate for impeachment — just as the GOP presidential primary is getting underway.

“If he hasn’t acted earlier, Obama could roll a hand-grenade into the middle of the Republican Primary,” Sharry said, adding that even if impeachment chatter is confined to the margins, it will make legislative action by Republicans on the issue all but impossible: “They will have squandered their shot at getting right with Latinos and Asian Americans for a generation.”

Even if there is no impeachment chatter, any executive action would itself make any action by Republicans on the issue harder still. And even if Obama does not take executive action, there is also the prospect of immigration reform getting tied up in GOP presidential primary politics, which some GOP operatives dread because it could drag the field to the right heading into 2016.

In short: there’s just no reason to assume reform will be any easier for Republicans next year than it is right now, and there are multiple scenarios in which it could be harder next year. And if it doesn’t get done in 2015, Republicans will be heading into the next presidential election having failed to embrace reform yet again — after yet another contentious debate marked by who knows what sort of rhetoric — making relations with Latinos still worse, as demographic reality marches on.

“Republicans are not in the catbird seat on immigration,” Sharry concluded. “They’re in front of a firing squad.”

Folks who keep suggesting Republicans can afford to be nonchalant about this issue are just getting it wrong. They can’t.

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