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The biggest danger for Republicans on the explosive issue of immigration would be identifying themselves as stubborn defenders of a status quo nobody likes.

Yes, it’s essential to fight back against President Obama’s outrageous power grab in unilaterally declaring executive amnesty for millions. But even if the GOP somehow managed the unlikely feat of blocking and undoing every aspect of the new White House initiative, would this give us an effective and honorable immigration system?

We’d still have a bureaucratic nightmare that punishes people who play by the rules and rewards those who ignore them. We’d still encourage immigrants who need our help rather than new arrivals who can help us in building our society and economy. We’d still make it impossible for those undocumented immigrants who want desperately to earn legal status and to enter the American mainstream, while making it all too easy for millions to go on working in the shadows and off-the-books, without meaningfully assimilating into their communities.

Worst of all, if Republicans confine themselves to hysterical opposition to Obama’s executive order they will allow the president to seize the initiative and set the agenda for his last two years. Why should conservatives engage the progressive opposition on battlefields our opponents select? President Obama would love to stage an all-out war over potential government shutdowns, legal challenges to his authority, confirmation of his prominent appointees, or even impeachment charges– because those are fights he knows he can win. Meanwhile, such bitter conflicts only re-enforce the master narrative of the left: that Republicans are merely “The Party of No,” determined to stop Obama at every turn, but with no proposals of their own to improve the country or the lives of its citizens.

If President Obama spends his last two years in perpetual combat with the Republicans who will run both houses of Congress, it may not improve his personal popularity but it will also do nothing to enhance GOP claims as a credible governing party. If anything, two years of determined GOP resistance to an Obama agenda will only set up Hillary Clinton for an easy path to the presidency as a healer, conciliator and compromiser. Never mind her own strident progressive past: she ran to Obama’s center as a candidate for the 2008 nomination and she will certainly highlight her differences with the outgoing chief executive in 2016 if he leaves office after two frustrating years of gridlock.

Rather than responding to Obama’s agenda on immigration, health care, minimum wage, energy independence, national security and a host of other issues, Republican Congressional leaders and prospective presidential candidates should unite around an agenda of their own. Force the president to respond to conservative reformers, rather than confining ourselves to crabbed reaction to Obama’s destructive moves.

On immigration, this means that the House should move quickly to pass a common sense, step-by-step, balanced version of immigration reform that emphasizes border security and work-place enforcement and does so in a way the American people can understand and endorse. Comprehensible reform is more important than comprehensive reform. Republicans should work for a pragmatic, limited improvement in the broken immigration system, rather than a sweeping, messianic revision like the bi-partisan Senate immigration bill – a worthy, well-intentioned, but far-too-complex 1,000 page behemoth.

The best way to beat Obama on immigration and on every other significant issue isn’t just to resist him, but to pre-empt him. If House and Senate move quickly on a more meaningful immigration reform than the president’s illogical stunt (that basically rewards only those immigrants who have entered the country without authorization and then proceeded to have babies here), they can restructure his arbitrary and unworkable standards for a path to legal status. No one doubts that Congress has the power to legislate in this area, and possesses the ability to replace the rules the president proposes, based on dubious authority.

The important point here is for Republicans to agree on basic principles and then to move forward quickly to conduct the ongoing debate on our terms, not the president’s.

Fundamental principles should include:


1. That any attempt at immigration reform must include provisions for enhanced border security and tough work-place enforcement

2. That legal immigration should become easier at the same time that illegal immigration becomes more difficult

3. That future immigration should give precedence to those with the skills to benefit our country and our economy, not low-skilled labor that can undercut native-born workers who are already struggling, and

4. That it’s unthinkable to deport every one of the 11 million illegals currently working in the United States, and similarly unthinkable to authorize every one of them to stay. The only sensible policy involves making clear distinctions among a highly varied population based on each applicant’s own past and future behavior. For those who fail to make proper application, pay appropriate fines, and go to the end of the line for permanent legal status, it should become impossible, or at least very difficult, to get work.


Polling shows that some three-quarters of Americans, including big majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, support these basic principles. The GOP should move quickly to affirm them, leading the country to debate a plan for reform that we propose to the public, rather than allowing ourselves to become consumed in angry squabbles over whether Obama’s executive orders count as wretched or righteous. If our only visible position involves opposition to the president’s actions then we cast ourselves in the doomed role of protectors of a disastrous status quo that nearly all Americans despise.

This column appeared at TRUTHREVOLT.org on November 26, 2014.

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