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The political upside of Obama's immigration plan

Military veterans call for Obama to "go big" on immigration
Military veterans call for Obama to "go big" on immigration
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Before and immediately after Election Day, I thought the sweeping GOP win would turn Democrats timid on using executive power to grant relief to unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. It's increasingly clear that I was wrong. The backlash against executive action that I was expecting to materialize from Senate Democrats hasn't happened, and the White House is prepared to move forward.

In part, I arguably miscalculated the degree to which the president feels personally committed on this issue and the extent to which his team believes action will boost the economy. But more importantly, I misconstrued how the politics look to Democrats in Congress. Whatever fears may exist on Capitol Hill about moving forward boldly, immigration activists have succeeded in creating greater fear on the other side. Doing something substantial to help otherwise law-abiding unauthorized migrants working in the United States and their families is seen not just as politically viable but as necessary for 2016 because it gives Latinos a reason to turn out and vote.

In a sense, the depth of the hole congressional Democrats now find themselves in makes this case more compelling than ever. If the balance of power in Congress were close, then Obama could back down and 2016 candidates could promise immigration reformers that electing more Democrats would pave the way for comprehensive reform.

But the GOP doesn't have a narrow majority in Congress, they have a fairly dominant one. Democrats have a favorable Senate map in 2016 and are likely to pick up seats, but winning the 5 or 6 necessary for a majority is a tall order. In the House, a combination of incumbency advantage and the nature of district boundaries makes a Democratic House extremely unlikely. And of course, obtaining the 60 Senate seats necessary to overcome a filibuster is totally out of the question at this point.

With the basic equation "more Democrats in Congress equals immigration reform" looking implausible, the choices available to the party are deliver what you can through executive action or deliver nothing.

Meanwhile, Hill staffers who believe in the political power of immigration reform point out that one of the biggest substantive drawbacks of executive action — its very tenuousness — is a political asset. What discretionary authority giveth, discretionary authority may taketh away, after all. If a Republican wins the White House in 2016, there will be no checks and balances to stop him from ordering the deportation of millions of immigrants granted relief by Obama. This dramatically heightens the stakes, not just for the immigrants themselves (who of course won't be eligible to vote) but for their friends, family, coworkers, and employers.

Of course the higher stakes also involve higher stakes of backlash. But from the viewpoint of the party that benefits from higher turnout, the risk-reward ratio looks good. Executive action on immigration — like Obama's climate plan before it — ensures that huge things will be on the ballot in 2016, even if legislative gridlock is baked into the cake. And for the party that has more trouble motivating its supporters to get to the polls, that counts as a win.