A large and growing body of evidence suggests that President Obama both has the legal authority to significantly reduce deportations and intends to use a great deal of that authority before the November election, most likely to allow many more unauthorized immigrants to remain and work in the country.
For perhaps the first time in the past five years, the reform advocates the administration consults, along with Democrats in Congress who have been pressuring Obama to go big, have some spring in their step. Legal experts have advanced multiple arguments establishing Obama’s ability to offer protection to millions of immigrants. And according to the LA Times the action under consideration would cover “roughly 5 million of the estimated 11 million people who entered the country without legal authorization or overstayed their visas.”
As far-reaching as that sounds, it arguably wouldn’t actually max out Obama’s legal authority. But that’s just another way of saying that the politics of deferred action for low-priority offenders cut both ways. And by my count, five competing pressures will control the scope of Obama’s actions.
1) Re-enlisting the 2012 coalition
This goal underlies just about everything Democrats in Congress and President Obama have done since early in his second term—from advocating for a minimum wage increase, to expanding civil rights for gays and lesbians, and even to passing comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. What makes immigration different is that it’s a big outstanding issue on which Obama can, but hasn’t yet, taken action on his own. Unless he announces new deportation protections, he can’t claim to have cashed in all his chips with progressives and immigrant voters, and that would in turn cut against the goal of reducing Democrats’ midterm fall off problem.
2) Making Republicans be offensive and extreme
Item one goes hand in glove with item two. If the prospect of action on deportations doesn’t in and of itself motivate key Democratic constituencies to show up in November, the spectacle of Republicans agitating for maximum deportations and saying nasty things about immigrants might just do the trick. If it keeps various members of Congress and conservative celebrities agitating for impeachment, all the better. If these were the only two political factors weighing on the administration’s decision, it’d stand to reason that Obama would push the envelope—do everything his advisers believe the law empowers him to do without hesitation. But there’s more.
3) Obama probably wants to avoid an actual impeachment
As much as Democrats enjoy goading Republicans into threatening impeachment, and as much as I and everyone else outside a conservative fringe believe an actual impeachment fight would be severely damaging to GOP political interests, I also think Obama would like to go as far as possible on immigration without inviting the kind of right-wing backlash that forces GOP leaders to actually introduce articles of impeachment. Obviously I don’t think he’s going to do anything he thinks is unlawful. But it’s what Republicans think that matters, and the clamor for impeachment will grow in proportion to the scale of the action he takes. I could be wrong about this. But impeachment is the kind of hyper-polarizing confrontation Obama has generally submitted to rather than welcomed. It’d also center around a substantive and potentially controversial policy decision (as opposed to perjurious statements about oral sex) and thus carry a patina of seriousness that other GOP acts of procedural extremism have lacked.
4) Protecting Southern Senate Dems
The most straightforward (but I believe overstated) political downside to acting in September or October (as opposed to in early 2015) is that the election this November won’t turn on national mobilization, but on a handful of closely contested Senate races, in states with small immigrant populations, where opposition to legalization is strong and Obama is deeply unpopular. The big bone of contention is that some Democratic political operatives don’t believe it makes sense to draw another divisive issue into these races, and force vulnerable candidates to choose between aligning with Obama and taking a position at odds with immigrant voters and the rest of the party. But this is more a question of timing than of scope.
5) The child-migrant crisis
This one cuts both ways. The prospect of deporting thousands of children will create an imperative for Obama to get right with immigrant voters, and (perhaps mostly) with immigration reform advocates, who are already unhappy with the president’s deportation record. But the idea of effectively legalizing millions of unauthorized immigrants against the backdrop of the child-migrant crisis raises the possibility that the broader public will ultimately turn against the action, and that the whole political plan will backfire.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.