GOP on Immigration: Chess or Checkers?

Greg Sargent, that intrepid reporter and analyst of the politics and policy of immigration, has a theory about the lurch of the GOP into the dangerous territory of becoming the Party of Deportation: it’s mainly aimed at heading off executive action by the president that could indeed make him the long-term winner in the struggle over immigration policy:

I strongly suspect much GOP rhetoric over the [border] crisis is designed to achieve maximum constraint on Obama’s sense of what’s politically possible on unilaterally easing deportations. Case in point: Ted Cruz’s declaration that any GOP response to the crisis must defund Obama’s deferred-deportation program. Cruz has a history of revealing underlying political calculations with unvarnished clarity. He justified the government shutdown to stop Obamacare by arguing that once the law kicked in, people would like it and it would never be repealed.

Something similar may be happening on deportations. As Frank Sharry argues, Obama action on deportations could “permanently cement the reputation of the Democrats as for immigrants and for the changing American electorate and Republicans as against it.” It’s unclear how ambitious Obama will be. But given Cruz’s fevered view of #ObummerTyranny, he probably expects Obama to go big, and he may agree so doing would lock in Latinos for Dems. Hence the move to preclude it….

If they punt on their current response, it could persuade Obama he can position himself as the only problem solver in the room on immigration, giving him more space to act unilaterally. Of course, to reap these benefits, Obama will have to be seen as managing the current crisis effectively. And he has not accomplished this — politically or substantively.

So according to Greg’s theory, Republicans are playing a game of chess with Obama in which the ultimate stakes are the long-term positioning of the two parties vis-a-vis the rising Latino electorate.

An alternative take might be that Republicans are actually playing checkers, not chess. There have always been two political arguments for the GOP resisting its nativists impulses. One is the simple fact that the current electorate–even rank-and-file Republicans–favor comprehensive reform. (Add in support from the Chamber and important individual donors, and supporting reform might make sense even if Latinos didn’t vote). The second is the well-known demographic argument that permanently alienating Latinos could spell long-term disaster for a party dangerously dependent on older white folks. The border crisis has undermined the first argument, as evidenced by polls showing a significant reduction in support for a “path” to either legalization or citizenship, especially among Republicans. And that could be what GOP politicians are reacting to with their eyes focused strictly on this November, leaving the long-term consequences among Latino voters to future consideration.

I’m not sure which theory is the most accurate; most likely, each is valid for different Republicans who are straying into deport-em-all rhetoric. Either way, Greg’s right: how it all turns out may depend mostly on what Obama does next.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.