The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why President Obama just made comprehensive immigration reform tougher

Before President Obama's big move on immigration, the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in the new Congress were dim. Afterward, they're arguably even dimmer.

Obama's decision to defer deportations for more than 5 million illegal immigrants has divided the American people in half -- and even improved the president's numbers on the immigration issue -- according to new polling from Quinnipiac University and CNN. What it also appears to have done, though, is exacerbated the real problem with getting comprehensive reform done: a very motivated opposition.

This has long been the main obstacle to comprehensive reform -- i.e. some form of legalization of illegal immigrants, plus border security -- and since the executive action, the opposition is on the rise again.

The Q poll shows support for allowing illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship falling to its lowest point since the survey started asking the question two years ago. Fewer than half -- 48 percent -- now support a path to citizenship, down from 57 percent one year ago.

The poll also shows that 35 percent say these immigrants should be required to leave (the word "deportation" is not mentioned). That's a new high, and it's up nine points from the last poll.

And here's the real kicker: The shift is almost completely among Republicans. Although they supported citizenship over deportation 43 to 38 percent in November 2013, today they support deportation/involuntary departure over citizenship, 54 to 27 percent.

That's two to one -- a stunning shift. And if it's even close to accurate, there are very few Republicans in Congress who will be eager to vote for comprehensive reform in the 114th Congress. The fear of primary challenges was already strong enough when the party was split on citizenship and deportation; now it's probably overwhelming (at least in the minds of self-preservation-minded incumbents).

The changes described above, of course, might not be only a result of what Obama did. They also could be influenced by the summer border crisis, for instance. But it's pretty logical to assume that Obama's actions pushed things in this direction (and the border crisis's effect on polling pretty well dissipated in recent months).

The CNN/Opinion Research poll tells a similar tale. Although 42 percent favored the policies that Obama announced and 46 percent opposed them, it was clear where the motivation remains: with the opposition.

CNN also showed people opposed Obama acting to implement those policies on his own, 56 to 41 percent. And when it asked people how they felt about Obama's policy changes on an emotional level, 43 percent were either "angry" or "displeased," while just 31 percent said they were "enthusiastic" or "pleased" -- a 12-point gap. What's more, the "angry" (16 percent) outnumbered the "enthusiastic" (8 percent) by two to one.

There are probably some -- maybe even in the White House -- who had hoped that Obama's executive action on immigration would force the hand of congressional Republicans to act on immigration in the months ahead. "Pass a bill," Obama has intoned repeatedly.

But although it might cause Republicans to pass something immigration-related, the idea that they are suddenly going to be motivated to act on some kind of comprehensive bill with a legalization component remains pretty farfetched. And if their base is indeed moving toward deportation, there's basically no chance.

Obama needed for this move to be a political winner -- something that would make Republicans want a piece of the action when it came to reforming the immigration system.

So far, though, it has revealed just how soft the support for comprehensive immigration reform is. And it has hardened the opposition.