After President Obama introduced his executive actions on immigration last November, Republicans took a two-pronged approach to stopping the reforms from going into effect. In the legislature, a new Republican majority in Congress tied funding on the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees immigration enforcement) to a repeal of the White Houses policy. In the courts, a coalition of Republican governors sued the executive branch in Texas vs. the United States.
On Monday night, Republicans scored a major victory in the courts when a preliminary injunction was issued, halting Obama’s deferred action program, which would have begun on Wednesday. Judge Andrew Haden of the Texas District Court didn’t rule on the substance of the program’s legality, but effectively stalled it for up to two years. Therefore, Republicans have found an immediate way to stop Obama’s policy, possibly until he leaves office in 2017.
Losing An “Up-Hill” Battle
The fight in the legislature by contrast has proved fruitless and costly. Democrats threatened to filibuster the bill advance in the Senate, and President Obama promised to veto it if it made it to his desk. Despite the fact that a defunded Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would still run at 85%, lawmakers exchanged rhetorical blows over who would take the blame for the innocuous mini-government shutdown.
"If people in Congress want to have that debate about immigration reform, let's have that debate. But don't tie that to public safety and homeland security for the American people," said DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, on February 8th. While Republican leaders countered in short statements that and defunding bill would be the Democrats’ fault, they fell on deaf ears.
According to a CNN/ORC poll released on Tuesday, 53% of Americans would fault the Republican Congress if DHS were “shut down,” while only 30% would blame the White House.“If Democrats won’t let us get on any bill, there’s nothing anyone can do,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to The Hill.
“If Democrats won’t let us get on any bill, there’s nothing anyone can do,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to The Hill. “It’s in the President’s interest to fund the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe the President will engage his party and have them have this debate,” he said, referring to Democrats’ filibustering of the bill.
Observers on both sides of the aisle were surprised that McConnell and others used the court ruling as a talking point, and not an “out.” Pundits, politicians, and legal experts urged them to walk away from an attritional fight.
“I’m not an expert on Washington [politics] but it surprises me that the Republicans are not using this as an opportunity to get off the hook,” said Michael W. McConnell, a former appellate court judge and current law professor at Stanford University, in an interview with the Latin Times. “I certainly wouldn’t put the odds [of the lawsuit succeeding] at 100%,” he said, but it they are high, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week.
Republicans Begin To Walk Away, But What Have They Lost?
By Thursday, Republicans regrouped. Senators who had vehemently supported a strings-attached Homeland Security bill began to rethink their positions. Marco Rubio--who had previously supported “any measure that has a chance of succeeding that could stop the new [immigration] order”--pulled back, saying “We can't let Homeland Security shut down.” He made no mention of the Texas vs. the United States ruling and it’s political convenience to his opposition of deferred action. Republican Senator McCain did, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” talkshow.
“It’s not a good idea to shut down the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “We should be working together despite the obstruction of our Democratic colleagues to resolve this issue so that we don’t shut it down. Now we have the perfect reason to not shut it down because the courts have decided, at least initially, in our favor.”
Republicans may have avoided blame for another government shutdown and one potential voter backlash. However, their aggressive opposition to deferred action may have contributed a different backlash: the Latino vote in 2016. It’s not that immigration is the only Latino issue; the economy was more important to Hispanic voters in the 2014. But a protracted fight against immigration reform doesn’t help Republicans. For GOP members eyeing the Hispanic vote, recent condemnation from Hispanic leaders and Spanish-language media can’t be good.