Immigration dilemma threatens Republicans

The furor over President Barack Obama’s executive action shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation poses hazards for him, including legislative complications, a possible legal challenge and a public backlash.

The risks for Republicans are greater, threatening schisms among the party’s members of Congress through next year, spilling over to the 2016 presidential contest and perhaps costing them votes.

The political assessment is clear from the reaction since Obama’s Nov. 20 announcement: Most Democrats back the move, and they relish the anger from a range of Republican constituencies, from the anti-immigration right to moderates who resent that the president has put them on the defensive.

Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the Republican leaders in Congress, have a strategy to minimize the fallout: offer irrelevant resolutions condemning the president, cite court challenges to focus on the legal question rather than the substantive one, and nick at some funding for the president’s initiative.

Although it will cause tension with the anti-immigration bloc, this approach is likely to succeed in the current lame-duck session. But the issue will keep coming back.

That’s because much of the Republican base is anti-immigration and would like to deport most of the 11.5 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

That was evident in the past two presidential primary cycles, when Mitt Romney, once sympathetic to immigration reform, responded to rank-and-file pressure and flipped.

It also was evident earlier this year when Boehner laid out a plan that would result in House passage of a comprehensive bill. In March, he told donors he was “hell-bent” on getting it done. The reaction from the grassroots level was vehement, even threatening Boehner’s speakership. He had to back down.

Since these conservative opponents lack the votes to overcome an Obama veto, McConnell and Boehner will have to head off moves to shut down the government or even start impeachment proceedings. The midterm elections have strengthened the speaker’s position compared with a year ago, but the grassroots passion hasn’t lessened.

That assures immigration will be an issue in the 2016 Republican presidential race.

Hispanics and Asian Americans are important and growing forces in battleground states such as Colorado, Virginia and Florida. But as demonstrated by Romney – who was beaten 71 percent to 27 percent among Hispanics and did almost as poorly with Asian Americans – a Republican candidate has to pass a threshold of acceptability on immigration to be able to go on to compete on other issues.

The first presidential primary debate is almost certain to feature this question: As president, would you repeal Obama’s executive action and his earlier move that gave temporary legal status to many immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children?

That then will become a litmus test for much of the base and also prevent congressional Republicans from seeking the most effective antidote to Obama’s action: passing a comprehensive and credible bill of their own.