Should Obama Push Executive Action on Immigration After His Shellacking?

Yes, if he doesn't want 2016 to be an even bigger debacle


Boss Tweed / Foter / CC BY

There is no doubt about it: The rout of the Democratic Party this week has taken the wind out of any impending executive action on immigration that President Obama might have had in mind. He got his ass handed to him by voters and it would seem like insanity to ignore their verdict and unilaterally push something this controversial.

Even Vox's Ezra Klein, no foe of immigration reform, openly ridiculed White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest's reassurance that President Obama would go forward with his executive action. "But…really?" Klein scoffed. "Republicans just won overwhelming victories in the House, the Senate and the states, but Obama is going to go ahead and announce a major executive action all of them disagree with? At this point, if the action happens at all, my guess is it will be a lot smaller than supporters are expecting."

But that'll be a mistake: President Obama ruined his party because his promises about Obamacare – that people who liked their plan could keep it; it would lower premiums for most people; it wouldn't crowd out employer coverage and yada, yada, yada – turned out to be complete lies. Now if his promise about giving relief to millions stuck in the broken immigration system turns out to be a lie too, 2016 will turn into an even bigger debacle for Democrats who'll need the Latino vote more than ever to win the presidency and take back the Senate.

Obama vaguely suggested in his post-election press conference that whether "it's immigration or climate change," he's still going to do what it takes to secure what's best for our communities. Climate change he should definitely rethink. But immigration is another matter, even though he'll be under a lot of pressure to give that up too. RNC Chair Reince Priebus had been promising the GOP faithful that if his party took the Senate, it will do everything in its power — "defunding, going to court, injunction…you name it" — to stop Obama from declaring "executive amnesty." (This is a poetic mischaracterization of what the administration has proposed given that executive action can't actually offer amnesty — meaning a path to citizenship or even permanent legalization — but instead, only temporary stay from deportation and a work permit.)

It is hard to overstate just how disgusted Latinos are by Obama's midterm switcheroo— deferring executive action till after Nov. 4 for nakedly political reasons. But cynical as his decision may have been, it did make a certain amount of political sense. Of the 10 toss-ups that were in play this week, only one — Colorado — had a significant Latino presence. Deferring action no doubt depressed their turnout (although by how much is debatable since Latinos don't show up in huge numbers for the midterms anyway). Forging ahead would have mobilized far more whites in the other nine states, making this week even more of a rout for Democrats.

But in the 2016 presidential election, this dynamic will fundamentally change: Midterm voters are famously whiter, older and more Republicans. Conversely, Latinos are a more crucial factor in far more swing states in presidential elections. Indeed, as Obama himself admitted to The Des Moines Register before the last presidential election that the one big reason he would capture a second term is because the GOP had so thoroughly alienated Latinos, the fastest-growing demographic group. And what was true then is going to be even truer next time.

Latinos made up 11 percent of the eligible voting population in 2012, and that number will be even higher by 2016. It will rise by 2 percentage points in critical presidential swing states, including Florida (where their share of the electorate will hit 19 percent), Colorado (16 percent), and Nevada (18 percent) — as well as New Mexico (42 percent), Texas (29 percent), and Arizona (22 percent).

That ought to give Democrats an automatic advantage except for this fact: Just because Latinos are eligible to vote doesn't mean that they will. Only 50 percent of them turn out compared with 66 percent of whites; that's one reason why Texas is still so reliably red. Latinos' 2012 turnout rate was higher because Obama had vowed to push immigration reform through Congress on a priority basis in his second term.

Latinos are perfectly aware that Obama's failure to deliver was in no small part due to the obstructionism of a small subset of loudmouthed House Republicans. They might have forgiven him for that — except that he has removed more undocumented immigrants from the United States than even President Bush, earning the soubriquet of deporter-in-chief. Worse, he has been downright heartless in how he's dealt with unaccompanied Latin American minors seeking asylum, pressing to deport them without even the hearing required under a Bush-era law against human trafficking.

So the only way to inspire Latinos to make the schlep to the voting booth and pull the lever for Democrats in 2016 is to make good on Obama's promise and offer their unauthorized loved ones deportation relief. But that isn't the only political advantage of pushing executive action.

Everyone (even Real Clear Politics' election analyst Sean Trende, who authored a compelling series called the "missing white voters," noting that Republicans can become more competitive by concentrating on white voters) acknowledges that Republicans will have to do better than the 27 percent Latino vote that Mitt Romney got in order to win presidential elections. At the very minimum, that will require them to back off from the kind of harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric that Romney and other Republican presidential hopefuls deployed during the last primary.

But they can't do so while raising a big stink over executive action. Making that the central issue in budget fights will rally Latinos not just to vote for Democrats — but against Republicans. It would cement Republicans' reputation as an anti-Latino, anti-immigrant party, hurting its prospects in the long term when whites do become a mere plurality.

What's more, many Republican governors in Latino-dense states, such as Rick Scott in Florida, won at least partly because they made an all-out drive to attract Latinos. Congressional Republicans' harsh talk will intensify the civil war in the party, all of which will redound to the benefit of Democrats. This is especially the case since, contrary to this election when more Democrats were defending their Senate seats than Republicans, in 2016 Republicans will be defending 24 seats compared to Democrats' 10.

If Republicans were smart, they'd counter President Obama's executive action with their own immigration initiative to steal some of his thunder and minimize the political damage to themselves. And, strange to say, given the expanded Republican presence in the House, the GOP leadership might have more room to maneuver and meet him half way  because it might be able to get more recurits for reform and marginalize the obstructionists in its midst.

Thus both from the standpoint of policy and politics, the president shouldn't necessarily back off now.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.