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08/14/2014 04:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama Prepares to Walk the Immigration Tightrope

NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

President Obama is about to walk a political tightrope, on immigration reform. We know this because the White House has been hinting for weeks that Obama will be making an announcement outlining a big policy change. Obama himself will be fulfilling a promise he made earlier this year -- that if Congress couldn't manage to act before the August break, then he would. This is going to be a risky action for Obama to take, for many reasons (hence the tightrope metaphor). How it all plays out is anyone's guess, at this point.

If the White House leaks are to be believed, what the president is contemplating is deferring deportation for up to 5 million people. If true, this will be a significant shift in policy which will change the lives of almost half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

Congress has already proven that they are either unable or unwilling to do anything about the problem themselves. For roughly a decade, Congress has struggled with the issue of immigration reform, and produced zero bills as a result. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and with both Republican and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, absolutely nothing has been achieved. President George W. Bush pushed the issue, to no avail. President Obama promised to push the issue his first year in office, but then didn't do so amidst the health care reform morass that Congress was busy with. By failing to do so, Obama likely squandered the chance he had of passing something with his own party in complete control of Congress. Since then, Senate Democrats and Republicans did pass a sweeping reform bill, but the Republican House refuses to bring it up for a vote (even though it quite likely has the votes to pass). John Boehner has been promising action for over a year now, and nothing has been done at all to fundamentally reform immigration policy. Boehner's complaint with the bipartisan Senate bill was that it was too big, and that his chamber would break it up into smaller bills. He has not managed to pass even one of these promised smaller bills, however -- even a bill to strengthen border security (which would seem to be the one subject Republicans could agree upon). Obama has gotten more and more frustrated with the House's inability to legislate, which is why he signaled earlier this year that August would be the deadline for the House to get their act together. They didn't, and now Obama is preparing to announce what he's going to do instead.

Obama has already acted once, when he announced the deferment of deportation of the children brought here by their parents who have kept their noses clean ever since. One rumor currently circulating is that Obama is about to announce the same program for their parents (there are many rumors, which the White House is neither confirming nor denying, at this point).

Before we get to the politics of such an announcement, first we must examine the legal implications (because some of these will drive the political reaction). Republicans will, naturally, scream "Amnesty!" in response to Obama acting, but this isn't really true at all. Neither the children already deferred nor any other group added by Obama will have true legal residency. They will not have a "path to citizenship," nor will they acquire any sort of permanent legal paperwork to stay in this country. They might receive the ability to work legally in the country (depending on what Obama does, of course), but anything they do receive will be temporary at best. What one president can announce, another can overturn. Absent action by Congress to change the underlying immigration laws, all Obama can offer is temporary and limited relief to undocumented immigrants.

This could be problematic, in the future. Half-measures have a way of creating unintended consequences, to put this another way. In the first place, a half-measure might remove the pressure on Congress to really solve the problem, by giving them the "Obama already acted" excuse for not doing their jobs. Republican backlash to Obama's action may just poison the issue politically for years to come -- one very big risk that Obama seems already to have discounted (they're not acting now, so not acting in the near future isn't really all that big a threat, he might be thinking).

A second risk is creating an "official" limbo for these immigrants to live in. Currently, they are in the shadows, entirely outside the law. What Democrats have been strongly pushing is a pathway to citizenship -- some process where these people can both buy into the legal system (paying back taxes, for instance) and wait a significant amount of time (13 years, in the Senate bill); but then in the end have the opportunity to become fully naturalized citizens of the United States. Republicans -- before they became absolutely gridlocked by their Tea Party wing in the House -- were planning on offering up permanent second-class status instead. Their idea was to offer a pathway to legalization, and not citizenship. They were hoping nobody would notice this bait-and-switch, and they might have indeed gotten away with it if Boehner had produced such a bill right after the Senate voted on theirs. Latinos might even have accepted such a plan, if it had given all 11 million the opportunity to live their lives here legally, with no fears of ever being forced out. Anything is better than nothing, and that half-loaf might have looked mighty tempting, to put this another way.

But Obama, since he is limited in what he can do unilaterally, may be creating an even more-tenuous category (call it third-class status), where people get some legal protection (not being deported, which is a big deal) but without any possibility of any path to even a more-permanent legalization (the children already affected by Obama's action only get two-year deferments). Their status will depend heavily on who is elected president next, and what he or she does. They'll still have to live in fear of their third-class status being revoked after each two-year period expires. Which is, as I said, a sort of limbo, at best.

Politically, of course, Obama will be risking a lot. Republicans are going to howl in rage, that's pretty much guaranteed. The backlash will be ferocious in nature. Ranting and raving can be expected for many news cycles to come after Obama's announcement, that's for sure. What Republicans actually choose to do about it, however, remains to be seen. They have a number of options, each of which carries its own political risk.

Republicans could just choose to endlessly howl, without doing anything concrete. They are very good at loudly doing exactly nothing, in fact. They could use it as a campaign bludgeon, and try to sweep the upcoming midterms. No matter what else they choose to do, this is also pretty much guaranteed, it should be mentioned. The other options are all likely to originate in John Boehner's House. House Republicans could attack the president's actions (in various ways) through the legislative process. They could hold televised hearings on the issue, to put pressure on the Obama administration. They could pass some sort of non-binding resolution condemning Obama's action. They could attack it through the power of the purse, and write tight restrictions into the budgets, to try to "zero out" all funding to implement Obama's policy. These would all be fairly low-risk actions for House Republicans to take.

But the riskier actions may prove to be too tempting for them. John Boehner has gotten the House's approval to file a lawsuit against President Obama for executive overreach, but (a key point many have missed) he has not actually filed any lawsuit yet. The plan was supposed to be to take all of August to get the lawsuit ready, and then to file it with great fanfare right after Congress returns from its month-long vacation. But there would be nothing stopping them from switching the focus of this lawsuit from a fairly inane legal attempt over a slipped Obamacare deadline to suing the president over his new immigration policy. Again: they have not filed their lawsuit yet, so nobody really knows what it's going to have in it. Then there's the riskiest strategy of all: the House could file articles of impeachment against President Obama. The Republican base may, indeed, accept nothing less than this. A namby-pamby lawsuit pales in comparison to the red-meat aspect of impeaching the president, especially out on the campaign trail. Boehner may just get backed into a corner where he has to go ahead with impeachment, or risk his own leadership position.

Democrats will -- no matter what Republicans do -- create their own backlash to the backlash. Both sides will be using the issue politically. That's pretty much a given. Democrats will paint the Republicans as both incompetent (for failing to act on their own) and heartless (for the all-but-inevitable nasty language which will be spouted by some Republican officeholders). Latino approval for President Obama will likely skyrocket. Liberals who have become disillusioned with Obama over time may also get a little energized, if Obama's announcement is bold enough. And if the Republicans truly overreach by attempting impeachment, Democrats will make a strong argument that the entire Republican Party has been hijacked by extremists. All of this may help Democrats with turnout in the midterm elections, and (depending on just how nasty the Republican response gets) it may also help them with independent voters as well.

However, it must be pointed out that Democrats (from Obama on down) will be taking big political risks as well. A recent poll by Reuters/Ipsos offers up some very sobering numbers for Democrats: "Seventy percent of Americans -- including 86 percent of Republicans -- believe undocumented immigrants threaten traditional U.S. beliefs and customs, according to the poll." Other findings from the poll: 63 percent said "immigrants place a burden on the economy," 45 percent thought fewer legal immigrants should be allowed in to the country (as opposed to 17 percent who thought more should be allowed), and New England was even more anti-immigrant than the rest of the country (76 percent agreed with the "threaten beliefs and customs" line).

Now, this poll's wording may have been intended to provoke a certain type of response, and it was an online poll, so make of that what you will. This poll was also taken in mid-July in the midst of the "border crisis" of the children. But those numbers might just cause some second thoughts for Democrats currently running for office -- and Democrats announcing they don't support the president's new policy isn't going to look good for the White House. Immigration was ranked (in a separate Reuters/Ipsos poll) the "third most important problem facing the nation," so it might be impossible for any politician to duck the issue in the upcoming election.

President Obama announcing big changes to immigration policy is politically risky, for all concerned. He will indeed have to attempt to walk a tightrope in whatever he chooses to do. Nobody is even really sure when this announcement will happen. When Obama announced his vacation schedule, a few days back in Washington were added at the last minute with no explanation. Perhaps he'll make his big announcement while Congress is away, and then fly back up to Martha's Vineyard. Or maybe he's waiting until the end of the month, right before Congress returns to Washington. He could even wait until right after John Boehner actually files his lawsuit, in an effort to change the subject. But whatever the actual timing, the announcement should come within the next few weeks.

President Obama is quite likely going to try to take the moral high road in his announcement. Look for the president to use the phrase "it is the right thing to do" at some point in his address. Republicans have long been unsure whether their main complaint with Obama is that he is a weak leader or, alternatively, that he is an out-of-control power-mad tyrant. The risks in this respect are obvious, as the cries of "dictator" or "king" or "tyrant" will undoubtedly echo through the cable news shows for weeks afterwards. But Obama's high-wire act on immigration is also going to be risky in ways that now can barely be foreseen. In the long term, President Obama will help the Democratic Party cement the loyalty of Latino voters -- which could be decisive in presidential elections for decades to come. But in the short term, it's going to be a real tightrope for Obama (and Democrats) to walk.

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