If there's an elected Republican who thinks it wasn't a bad idea for President Obama to take executive action on immigration, he or she has yet to make that opinion known. Not surprisingly, the 20 or 30 men (and one woman) hoping to get the GOP nomination for president in 2016 have been particularly vocal on the topic. But while thunderous denunciations of the Constitution-shredding socialist dictator in the White House may seem to them today like exactly what the situation demands, before long they're going to be asked a simple yet dangerous question: If you become president, what are you going to do about it?
Although they haven't actually answered that question yet, their feelings have been unambiguous. Ted Cruz said Obama has "gotten in the job of counterfeiting immigration papers, because there's no legal authority to do what he's doing." Rand Paul compared the order to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Rick Perry threatened to sue over it. So did Scott Walker. So did Mike Pence.
Because these guys would all like to be president, we have to place their opposition in a different context from their current jobs as senators and governors. So let's imagine it's January 2017. You, Republican candidate, have just been sworn in as president. Two years ago, Barack Obama made this policy change, and as a result, millions of undocumented immigrants registered with the government, submitted to background checks, paid back taxes, and obtained work permits. They're now working legally and not living in fear of immigration authorities. You have to decide what's going to happen to them. This is a very different situation than it was back in 2014 when the move was announced. Instead of wondering whether we should give legal status to a group of undocumented immigrants, we're now wondering whether to take away legal status from a group of people who are documented, even if they're not actually on a path to citizenship.
And don't forget, these are pretty sympathetic folks — they've been in the United States for at least seven years now (under the order, only those who came before 2010 are eligible), and they were either brought here as children and grew up in America, or are the parents of children who were born in the U.S., or are legal residents. Deporting them would mean breaking up families. Just think how that's going to play on the evening news—the image of children crying desperately as their parents are carted off by law enforcement on your orders isn't exactly going to go over well.
That's what the next president will confront. So what are the possible answers a Republican candidate could give to the question of what they will do about Obama's order? They might say what a lot of Republicans fear, which is that however much they opposed the move in the first place, by 2017, undoing it will be impractical and cruel. But saying that would pretty much doom them with the extremely conservative white Republican primary electorate, because it both capitulates on the substance and reflects a stance of less than maximal opposition toward something Barack Obama did.
Alternatively, they could say they'll immediately reverse the order and start deporting these immigrants. In fact, if they believe as they say that the order is illegal, wouldn't they have no choice but to revoke it? And immediately? The trouble is that saying so would risk both alienating and mobilizing Latino voters, for whom undocumented people aren't an abstraction or an invading horde but individual human beings.
If the eventual nominee said explicitly that he'll revoke Obama's order, it could remind a lot of people of 2012, when Mitt Romney suggested that given the impracticality of rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants, the way to deal with the problem was "self-deportation" — in other words, making life so miserable for them that they decided to return to the countries from which they fled. Even RNC chairman Reince Priebus later called that comment "horrific" because of the message it sent to Latinos. Pledging to start breaking up families would be even worse.
Since both those answers are extremely unappealing, the GOP candidates might try to retreat to a dodge — something like, "I'll sit down with congressional leaders to determine a way forward." Any reporter or debate monitor with a pulse is likely to follow up with, "O.K., but legislation can take time, and there's little appetite among Republicans in Congress for immigration reform that goes much beyond building fences. So in the meantime, would you leave Obama's order in place or issue your own order revoking it?" And they'd be right back where they started.
There are times when it's perfectly reasonable for a candidate to answer a tough question with "It depends," and this could be one of those times; for instance, how a Republican president would address the issue could depend on how many people actually sign up for this new legal status. But let's be realistic: Republican primary voters are unlikely to accept that as an answer. They're going to want a declaration of resolve and commitment, a signal that the candidates feel the same way about undocumented immigrants that they do. And there is bound to be at least one candidate (Ted Cruz, I'm guessing) who will open the bidding with an emphatic pledge to reverse Obama's order on his first day in office. That will raise the pressure on all the other candidates to follow suit.
If they do, it will send a message of hostility that Latino voters will hear loud and clear, a message the GOP has been trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid for the last couple of years. Barack Obama sure boxed them in on this one, didn't he?