Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) realizes that his party's base disagrees with him on immigration reform, and is all too aware of the impact this might have on his national ambitions. It's one of the reasons the far-right Floridian has been pushing for a government shutdown and new restrictions on reproductive rights -- Rubio wants to get back in conservatives' good graces.
But the senator hasn't given up on immigration altogether, and yesterday offered the right another defense of his efforts.
Marco Rubio's back in the ring on immigration reform and he's got a new move: Congress needs to fix the problem -- or Barack Obama will.The line is meant to touch a nerve with conservatives who might dislike the idea of immigration reform, but loathe the idea of Obama taking on any major issue on his own -- let alone immigration. [...]"It's not an empty threat," said Frank Sharry, a veteran immigration reform proponent at the organization America's Voice. "If Republicans block reform with a path to citizenship, immigration reform activists will look at all their options, including broad executive action."
It's worth pausing to note what angle to the immigration debate Rubio considers most persuasive to the right. Is it the moral, pro-family argument? Or maybe a focus on economic growth? Deficit reduction? Beefing up border security?
No, Rubio believes the only argument that conservatives might find compelling is the one that leverages the right's contempt for the president. We need to pass reform, he says, or that awful Obama will cut out the legs from under us.
"I believe that this president will be tempted, if nothing happens in Congress, he will be tempted to issue an executive order like he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago, where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen," Rubio told a Florida radio host yesterday. "A year from now we could find ourselves with all 11 million people here legally under an executive order from the president."
And this, of course, leads to the next obvious question: could President Obama really pursue a policy like this?
Benjy Sarlin reported yesterday that Rubio "has a legitimate point."
After Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, Obama issued an executive order in 2011 halting deportations for young undocumented immigrants as a stopgap measure. While the White House lacked the authority to grant full legal status or create a path to citizenship for those affected, the program -- known as DACA -- gave undocumented youth dramatic new freedom to live and work in the country without fear of removal.Republicans cried foul, saying Obama had overstepped his authority. As recently as June, the overwhelming majority of the House GOP voted for an amendment by Congressman Steve King that would defund the deferral program. But if the president can exercise discretion in choosing not to prosecute DREAMers, he could in theory extend it to a wide swath of the undocumented population.
All available evidence suggests this is not the White House's preferred approach -- Obama has downplayed such talk and instead invested his energies in pushing Congress to do the right thing.
But if House Republicans kill bipartisan reform efforts, Obama will have a few options: wait and see if Democrats can take back the House after the 2014 midterms; hope his successor in the Oval Office is a Democrat after the 2016 elections; or expand DACA (which stands for "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals"). Reform proponents will certainly be pushing for Door #3.
There's some disagreement about what DACA expansion might look like -- it's a real stretch to think the president could extend citizenship opportunities to millions of undocumented immigrants without congressional action -- but Obama could certainly suspend deportations. He wouldn't have the authority to go nearly as far as the pending comprehensive legislation, but he could take some steps in that direction.
And while the president seems focused on congressional action, note that there's some recent precedent for executive action -- Obama was reluctant to adopt DACA in the first place, wanting Congress to instead pass the Dream Act. But when it became clear opposition from far-right Republicans was intractable, the president acted, grudgingly, on his own.
Rubio occasionally makes stuff up to advance bad arguments, but in this case, his warnings to the right are at least based in reality.