“We do not take this action lightly, but simply, there is no alternative. It’s not a dispute between the parties or even the branches of our government. This executive overreach is an affront to the rule of law and to the Constitution itself.”
This is a telling way to describe today’s measure. Republicans have long wanted the debate to be more about what they describe as Obama’s lawlessness — the legality and propriety of Obama’s executive actions in particular — than about underlying policy differences between the parties over what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.
But despite Boehner’s claim that today’s votes are not about “a dispute between the parties,” they actually clarify the dispute between the parties on that question.
Today’s action goes further than merely defunding Obama’s recent executive actions deferring the deportation of immigrants brought here as children (the 2012 DACA) and of millions of parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents (the more recent DAPA).
It also defunds the implementation of the 2011 Morton memos. The key Morton memo doesn’t formally defer deportation or extend work permits, which Republicans have denounced as crossing from standard prosecutorial discretion into rewriting the law. Rather, it merely lays out general enforcement guidelines that direct agents and lawyers to prioritize the deportation of serious felons, repeat offenders, and serious threats to national security over that of longtime residents, minors, the elderly, or the unhealthy. This was in keeping with Obama’s shift in priorities away from the deportation of low-level offenders with jobs and/or longtime ties to communities, and towards serious criminals and the border.
Today’s GOP action, at bottom, is effectively a repudiation of those basic underlying priorities. That would appear to mean Republicans think enforcement resources should be re-focused back on the deportation of low-level offenders — with jobs and community ties — from the interior. At least, it invites the question of whether that’s what Republicans think.
“Republicans just voted against a mainstream law enforcement utilization of prosecutorial discretion,” Frank Sharry of America’s Voice tells me. “Would they instruct enforcement agents to treat a DREAMer, the spouse of a soldier, or the mother of an American citizen as an equal deportation priority to a convicted gang member, a smuggler, or a serious criminal?”
When asked how we should approach the 11 million — is deportation the answer? — GOP lawmakers tend to sidestep the question. Indeed, Republicans who support reform privately express frustration over the refusal of many GOP lawmakers to get serious about the real dilemma we face — given that mass deportation isn’t going to happen. GOP aides derisively describe those who won’t entertain any form of legalization as the “boxcars crowd.”
What’s profoundly frustrating about all this is that for a time, it looked like we might have a real debate about the 11 million. Some Senate Republicans joined Democrats to pass comprehensive reform through the Senate in 2013, which traded a long path to citizenship for a major escalation of border security. Republican leaders know some form of this exchange — legalization under strict conditions tied to increased enforcement benchmarks — is the only path to genuine reform. After the Senate bill passed, John Boehner said a “vast majority” of Republicans know the 11 million must be dealt with. Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mario Diaz-Balart floated versions of this basic trade-off. It was articulated in the House GOP leadership’s own immigration reform principles.
But conservatives revolted, and that was the end of that. It was only after it became clear that Republicans would not vote on any such solution — even one of their own design, based on their own stated principles — that Obama took his most ambitious unilateral step to restore some sanity to our enforcement regime. And of course, that has led us right back to a place where Republicans are framing their stance on this issue primarily around opposition to Obama.
That may be good politics in most House Republican districts. But we’re now heading into another presidential race, and the House GOP position is arguably to the right of Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” stance. Scott Bland and Alex Roarty reported last summer that some Republicans were already worried the GOP’s rightward immigration drift could imperil their 2016 nominee.
Which raises a question: Does today’s House GOP stance have the support of Jeb Bush (who has explicitly called for recognizing the moral complexity of illegal immigrants’ plight); Mitt Romney (who presumably learned the pitfalls of a hard line on immigration); and Marco Rubio (who championed the Senate bill)? Spokespeople for all three have not answered emails asking that question.
Hillary Clinton supports Obama’s executive actions. The question of what to do about the 11 million is a major policy challenge facing the country, one that should be litigated in the coming presidential race. So let’s hear from the GOP presidential hopefuls on this.
UPDATE: I should have added that today’s overall measure passed by 236-191, with only 10 Republicans voting against it and only two Dems supporting it.