There's one way President Obama's executive action on immigration has been a boon to Republicans. Instead of coming up with their own immigration policy, the've been able to just unite against Obama's. But fury isn't a policy. And, as is clear, fury isn't going to stop Obama's policy.
But there is a simple way out of this immigration mess for Republicans: pass a bill that President Obama can sign.
Not a bill, mind you, that Obama necessarily wants to sign. It doesn't even have to be a bill Obama does sign. It can be a bill Obama will loathe. Republicans can propose the most militarized border this side of the DMZ. They can erase the Senate bill's path to citizenship. They can electrify the fence. They can wall unauthorized immigrants off from social services. Hell, they can even pass a bill authorizing funds to deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the US.
But one way or another, Republicans need to decide what to do with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country now. They need to take away Obama's single strongest argument — that this is a crisis, and that congressional Republicans don't have an answer and won't let anyone else come up with one.
Republicans aren't just the opposition party anymore. They are, arguably, the governing party — they will soon control the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, most state legislatures, and more governorships. And the governing party needs to solve — or at least propose solutions — to the nation's problems. And that means the Republican policy on immigration needs to be something more than opposing Obama's immigration policies. It needs to be something more than vague noises about border security.
This isn't a problem made up by Obama. It's math. There are 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country right now. Congress allocates enough money to deport roughly 400,000 of them annually. Our policy towards the 10.6 million unauthorized immigrants we're not deporting is that we don't have a policy. Democrats support a path to citizenship. Republicans don't support anything.
"To those Members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill," Obama said on Thursday.
Republicans have a word for Obama's strategy here: blackmail. The irony is rich. Democrats have been feeling blackmailed by Republicans for years now. To resolve the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 — a crisis they saw as pure blackmail — Democrats accepted budgets cuts they loathed. Perhaps that's the price of wielding power in American politics in 2014. You have to bargain under conditions you consider indecent.
The good news for Republicans is that they don't have to suffer the total defeat Democrats endured in 2011. They could support a bill many in their party really like. They could pass the Senate immigration bill without a path to citizenship. Maybe Obama wouldn't sign it. But if he didn't, it would be much harder for him to argue that he has no choice save for sweeping executive action. Republicans would have turned his argument against him.
And what are their alternatives? Impotent rage? A government shutdown? A slow-moving lawsuit? A disastrous impeachment effort? A solemn vow that whatever damage Obama does to the constitutional order, Republicans will double it when they retake the White House? All of these are likelier to wound the GOP than Obama. None of these are likely to benefit the party in 2016. And none of them solve the underlying problem.
Nor does continued confusion around immigration help Republicans. Just ask Mitt Romney, who tried to split the difference between restrictionists and reformers by endorsing "self-deportation". That worked well enough that Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, came out after the election to make clear that "it's not our party's position." But that's only because his party doesn't have a position.
That, really, is Obama's advantage right now. Even if you think he's going too far, he at least wants to solve the problem. Republicans don't seem to want to do anything except stop Obama from solving the problem. That's not a winning position. More to the point, it's not a responsible one.