Today we’re busily asking when President Obama will drop the immigration executive action hammer and whether Republicans will reply with screeching, government shutdowning or just getting it over with and finally impeaching President Obama. Indeed, this piece in Slate argues that the whole thing isn’t as big a deal as it’s cracked up to be since whatever President Obama does it’s just as easy to undo when he leaves office in January 2017.
But this, I think, misses the point. That’s exactly why this is such a big deal. Because if you think this is an explosive issue now, just wait until 2016.
Let’s start with a few assumptions and see where they lead.
1) Let’s assume, as numerous reports now suggest, that President Obama will issue one or more executive orders that effectively legalize roughly 5 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States.
2) Republicans have already put a huge amount of energy behind the notion that this is not only bad policy but likely also an unconstitutional action and impeachable offense.
3) Given that President Obama almost certainly will do this and the red lines Republicans have put down, it is virtually certain that any 2016 Republican nominee will have to run on undoing this executive order when he or she gets to the White House.
Now, this doesn’t mean a notional Republican president in 2017 is going to round up all 5 million people and deport them or force march them over the Mexican border. Indeed, I strongly suspect, after whatever outrage can be reaped is reaped, GOP elites will want the whole issue to go away.
But I don’t think the internal dynamics of GOP primaries or post-primaries will allow that to happen.
Now let’s work this through.
If there are 5 million people who are affected by this order, the number of people who either have family ties to these individuals or affective relationships with them is much larger. I don’t know if it’s 15 million or 20 million or 40 million. But it’s a lot more than 5 million people who will feel acutely the fate of these people hanging in the balance with the 2016 election. And advocates on both sides of the immigration divide, deporters and pro-immigrant activists will press the issue throughout the 2016 cycle. The 5 million affected can’t vote and won’t be able to for years. But many family members, friends, community members and employers can.
Yes, these people have been waiting for years to be able to come out of the shadows. But it’s one thing to wait and another to come out of the shadows and then be forced to retreat into the darkness, with a perhaps heightened risk of deportation and family separation.
It all adds up to an intense and likely toxic campaign fracas in which a lot of people will have a unique and intense motivation to vote. That will apply to people on both sides of course. But the anti-immigration voters vote consistently almost every cycle. And as intense as your animus is toward undocumented immigrants, it’s hard for it to compare to the motivation of voters who directly know someone who will be affected. And that latter group has far more ‘drop-off’ or occasional voters.
This isn’t getting mentioned a lot right now. But behind the headlines I suspect it’s one of the key reasons Republican elites are upset that this might happen: because it’s an electoral grenade dropped right into the heart of the 2016 campaign.