February 8

JUST A week ago, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a set of Republican principles that established a framework for reforming the nation’s broken immigration system. Now, in a whirlwind about-face, the speaker declares that the prospects for immigration legislation this year are slight because Republicans don’t trust President Obama to enforce laws the House might pass.

The suggestion that the president doesn’t or wouldn’t enforce immigration laws is transparently false. In the very near future, the Obama administration will deport its 2 millionth illegal immigrant, a pace much faster than that of President George W. Bush or any previous president. Under Mr. Obama, apprehensions along the Southwest frontier — a reflection of illegal border crossing activity — have fallen to a four-decade low. The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled in the past decade, to say nothing of sharply higher spending on other agencies and resources meant to stop illegal crossings.

Has all of this been lost on Mr. Boehner?

No, the speaker’s assertion is a smoke screen designed to obscure the fact that rank-and-file Republicans refuse to tackle immigration reform. Many persist in the fantasy that 11.7 million illegal immigrants, among them at least 7 million with jobs, should be forced to leave the country, and that anything short of that amounts to amnesty. Some might not buy into the self-deportation myth but fear a primary challenge if they appear lax. Others, more calculatingly, are loath to debate an issue that could prompt a venomous internecine fight, divert attention from what they see as the debacle of the Affordable Care Act and diminish GOP prospects in this fall’s midterm elections.

Mr. Boehner might have summoned the spine to quiet those doubts and coax his party toward immigration reform anyway. Or he could have acknowledged that despite his best efforts, he found the political problems within his party insurmountable. Instead, he blamed the GOP’s paralysis on Mr. Obama — concocting a weak excuse about the president’s supposed trustworthiness — in hopes that the best defense is an aggressive offense.

Mr. Boehner appears to genuinely support immigration reform and to grasp that it is a slow-motion demographic and political disaster for his party to continue to obstruct it. Perhaps his strategy is to wait and grapple with his caucus another day. But he undercuts his case when he lends credence to the canard that immigration law is not being enforced. The reality of enforcement under the Obama administration is measured in deportations that have fractured hundreds of thousands of families and upended hundreds of thousands of lives. It is apparent in long stretches of the border, once highly permeable, that are now so highly militarized that illegal crossings are difficult to impossible. It is reflected in the fact that for the first time in years, as many or more illegal immigrants have been leaving the country as entering it.

By recycling the lie about lax enforcement, Mr. Boehner encourages those in his party who would demand unattainable levels of border impermeability as a precondition for reform. That’s a recipe for paralysis.