President Obama is doing at least two things by using his executive powers to deal with the festering national issue of immigration. One is a matter of policy and the other, of politics.
First, he is forcing action on a matter that Americans want to see resolved, one that produced a strong bipartisan solution last year but one that tea party Republicans have repeatedly obstructed.
Second, before the new Congress is even in power, he is exacerbating the divisions within the Republican Party.
How either facet will play out is impossible to know.
The critical question to consider is whether Obama should use his executive authority in this way and, indeed, if all his actions fall within his legitimate powers. He wouldn’t be the first president to act on his own and in sensitive areas.
As Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, observed, Abraham Lincoln used an executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, to free slaves in the rebel states and Harry Truman used one to integrate the U.S. military.
Even more persuasive is the fact that a majority of both houses of Congress supported a bipartisan Senate bill painstakingly crafted last year. It was approved in the Senate but never came to a vote in the House, where Speaker John Boehner killed it because of tea party opposition.
It is clear that the nation must do something about its immigration problem. We can’t deport the 11 million immigrants here illegally, and we shouldn’t keep them permanently in their immigration limbo.
We would prefer that Congress tackle the problem, but it has already fumbled the opportunity.
The next act is up to Republicans. They should sit down and negotiate a comprehensive immigration reform package to take the place of Obama’s executive order.
Instead Republicans are talking about suing Obama, impeaching him or strangling the budget to try to force Obama to back off.
Suing Obama would at least allow the courts to rule on the limits of presidential power. Forcing a government shutdown on the immigration issue would go a long way toward convincing voters that Republicans can’t be trusted in the White House.
Still, it’s a sign of the continuing times that not even two weeks after the elections, the political fires are once again threatening to burn out of control. It’s what happens when compromise, the essential component of our democratic infrastructure, fails.