The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On immigration, the GOP’s window for action is closing fast

Today House Dems introduced their discharge petition to force a vote on immigration reform. No Republicans signed it. A John Boehner adviser justified this by tweeting that the votes aren’t there in the House for Dem reform proposals. Okay, but House Republicans won’t vote on their own proposals, either.

Ultimately, though, all of this dithering distracts from the big picture, which is this: If House Republicans don’t act on reform in the next few months, it’s likely Republicans will head into the next presidential election without having done anything significant to fix their Latino problem.

It’s hard to see a scenario in which Republicans act on immigration reform beyond the summer. If summer comes and nothing has moved, pressure on Obama to utilize executive action to slow deportations will be overwhelming. He’ll likely do something. The right will go into overdrive, making legislative reform even harder.

Two immigration reform advocates who have spoken personally with the president in recent days tell me they came away convinced he knows he will have to resort to executive action by summer if Republicans do nothing.

“The president made it clear that three months from now, if there is no legislative action, he will do more using executive authority,” says Lorella Praelli, the director of advocacy and policy for United We Dream, who was in a recent meeting between advocates and President Obama. “That was the message that we got in different ways.”

“The president left the clear impression that if Republicans don’t act in three months, he will,” added Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, who was also at the meeting.

You might be skeptical of this, since these advocates want Obama to resort to executive action. And it seems plausible Obama communicated to advocates that by summer, it will be time to move to Plan B, without being that specific about what Plan B will be. This might be the White House trying to get advocates to stop pressing for executive action now because it takes pressure off Republicans.

But the fact is there is good reason to think Obama will likely act if Republicans don’t move by summer. The Department of Homeland Security is already reviewing possibilities. If nothing happens by July, and we head into August recess, it’s hard to imagine Republicans acting in September or October, when the midterms are in full swing. Is lame duck action possible? Perhaps, but there is simply no way advocates will tolerate waiting that long. It would mean waiting nine more months for possible action — and the two million deportations mark will have long since come and gone.

So the pressure for action will be ferocious. It’s possible Obama won’t act, but it’s very hard to imagine it. The legality of executive action is convoluted, but some legal experts believe he has more leeway than the White House has publicly acknowledged. It’s also unclear what action might look like — would deportation be deferred for just parents of the DREAMers? Relatives of U.S. citizens? Working folks who are assets to communities? — but some kind of action seems borderline inevitable.

And any Obama action will only embolden the “tyranny” screaming hard-liners in the House GOP caucus, making reform harder still in the lame duck session and even beyond into 2015. What’s more, the GOP presidential primary starts up next year, and Ted Cruz (who denounced even the House GOP principles on reform as “amnesty”) may demagogue the heck out of the issue to appeal to a far right chunk of primary voters, making it harder for more sensible GOP candidates (and Congressional Republicans alike) to embrace reform. On top of that, the current Senate bill will expire, so we’d need the Senate to act again, also a heavy lift.

Is it possible Republicans will be able to pass reform next year? Perhaps, but it will likely be significantly harder than it is now.

Some might respond that once Republicans control the Senate next year, they can simply pass reform in both chambers on their own terms. But foes of reform will point to the GOP victory as proof they don’t need reform to win. Anything Republicans pass will be extremely inadequate — a combination of enforcement and citizenship for just the DREAMers, say — and won’t solve the crisis afflicting a whole community. That won’t fix the GOP’s Latino problem. Plus, this is a pretty big gamble to begin with, since Republicans might not win back the Senate.

Bottom line: There is good reason to believe that if House Republicans don’t act in the next few months, nothing serious is going to happen until at least 2017. Republicans will be heading into another presidential election without having done anything significant — or perhaps anything at all — to prove their willingness to address a humanitarian crisis afflicting a segment of the electorate that votes in presidential elections and continues to grow in many of the key swing states.