Why immigration could be central to 2016 campaign

The Obama administration will appeal to the Supreme Court after a lower court blocked its immigration actions. That puts the issue front and center in the presidential race. 

John Locher/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont (2nd from r.) embraces Pricilia Rodriguez-Trillo at the Fair Immigration Reform Movement presidential candidate forum on Monday in Las Vegas. Senator Sanders backed President Obama's decision to appeal a federal appeals court ruling striking down his executive actions to shield some 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.

President Obama’s effort to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation is on its way to the Supreme Court – and potentially right into the heart of the 2016 presidential campaign.

That could have a profound impact on both Mr. Obama’s legacy and on how the crucial Latino vote approaches the candidates of both major parties.

On Tuesday, after a federal appeals court ruling against the Obama administration on immigration actions taken almost a year ago, the Justice Department announced that it would ask the Supreme Court to take up the case. Last November, Obama announced a new deferred action program that would protect some 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to work. He also expanded his deferred action program for undocumented immigrants who had arrived as children.

In a 2-to-1 ruling, a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld an injunction that blocked implementation of the measures. The panel found that the administration had undermined the will of Congress and that Texas, the lead plaintiff, was in a strong position to sue because of the costs associated with issuing drivers’ licenses to the newly reclassified immigrants.

If the Supreme Court opts to hear the case, it would likely issue a decision next June – just as the 2016 presidential race is heading into the home stretch. And the implications for the Latino vote could be big, not only for the top of the ticket but also in key Senate races in states with large Latino populations, such as Nevada, Florida, Colorado, and Illinois.

Obama’s top legacy items – immigration reform, health-care reform, and the slowly improving economy – “are central to the party’s 2016 electoral prospects, particularly with Hispanic voters,” writes Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in an e-mail. “Even though health care reform and immigration reform are still hanging fire in the courts, Hispanics will reward Democrats for fighting on these issues and will punish Republicans for fighting against them.”

For Democrats, the issue speaks not just to the practical matter of addressing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, but also to a larger message of welcoming the nation’s growing diversity.

For many Republicans, the immigration issue goes first to concerns about rule of law. Top GOP candidate Donald Trump has garnered significant support in part because of his promise to deport the nation’s illegal population and put up a wall along the US-Mexico border.

Two Republican candidates are themselves Latino – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both Cuban-American. But only Senator Rubio of Florida is making his heritage an important part of his pitch, and if he’s the nominee, he will have a crucial opportunity to convince swing voters that he can handle the matter with compassion. Rubio once championed comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate – a point his GOP rivals have highlighted, and which could hurt his chances for the nomination.

But if Rubio reaches the top of the GOP ballot next November, he could tap into ethnic pride and siphon away some swing Latino voters, analysts say. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney got only 27 percent of the Latino vote in losing to Obama. The Republican nominee will need more than 40 percent of the Latino vote to take back the White House, the polling group Latino Decisions reported in July

Both major Democratic presidential candidates jumped on the Fifth Circuit’s ruling with quick reactions. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the lawsuit against the president’s executive actions “politically motivated” and asserted that the “legal authority supporting the president’s actions is well established.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont said the president was correct to appeal the lower-court decision. “American immigration policy should be about uniting families, not separating families,” he said in a statement.

Mrs. Clinton has promised to go further than Obama in allowing undocumented immigrants deferred deportation, and Senator Sanders has pledged to go even further still. On Monday, he said he would use his presidential powers to allow all undocumented people who have been in the US at least five years to stay here without fear of being deported.

At press time, Republican candidates had yet to react to either the Fifth Circuit’s ruling or Obama’s decision to appeal to the Supreme Court.

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