For Republicans, there is little to appreciate politically about President Obama’s unilateral actions on immigration. Clearly, the president — who has always treated immigrants as political weapons – recognized this fact and acted accordingly. But in some ways, his actions have actually made reform easier for the GOP.
If implemented, president’s actions would deem “lawfully present” somewhere in the neighborhood of five million illegal aliens. The silver lining for Republicans is that by acting much more moderately than his most radical supporters would have wished, Obama made the task of reform easier for Republicans.
While seemingly a lot, five million is actually three million less than the number of immigrants who would have qualified for such status under the Senate immigration bill (S. 744) that passed last Congress. This means that Obama actually lowered the bar for reform from 8 million to 5 million.
Republicans have more flexibility to enact positive immigration reform with this lower number. They could repeal the executive actions and enact an alternative proposal with immigrant support but provides legal status to fewer people than the Senate bill – which was, until Obama acted, Democrats’ top option.
For example, many conservatives, including the Heritage Foundation, support a worker program along the lines proposed by Helen Krieble, a conservative immigration activist. The Krieble Foundation proposal known as “the Red Card” would grant illegal aliens work permits if they return home.
With this starting place, it is easy to see how Republicans could do better – from the perspective of the immigrant community – than the president. For example, a Republican bill could waive the requirement that an immigrant depart if he or she had entered lawfully but merely overstayed a visa.
Most estimates find that nearly 40% of the illegal population entered legally. With this one waiver alone, Republicans could provide legal status to nearly as many of the 11 million people here illegally as the president did.
It’s easy to imagine conservatives embracing similar waivers for other categories of illegal aliens. Nearly a million individuals brought here illegally as children, for example, could be one such group. Another half a million or more agricultural workers – whose departure would bankrupt America’s farms – could be another.
These ideas are not out of the realm of political possibility. In its original form as introduced, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)’s bill, The Ag Act (H.R. 1773), which created a new guest worker visa for farms and dairies, would have waived the return requirement for those workers already here.
The point is that the Obama administration gave Republicans a gift by not actually fixing the problem. It is easier for Republicans to “repeal and replace” the status quo and to gain the immigrant support the party needs than it was before the president acted. A Red Card-style approach with waivers of the touchback for certain groups would also fix the long-term illegal immigration problem by channeling migrant workers into lawful avenues for entry.
Republicans should seize this opportunity. Repeal the president’s unauthorized actions and send the president a series of bills that he cannot reject.