Immigration 101: How Obama's move could echo through Washington

President Obama will please Latinos but could lose support of low-income workers with his immigration move. Republicans face the danger of overreacting – with possible fallout for 2016. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
The White House is seen as dusk falls in Washington Thursday, hours before President Obama is expected to announce steps he will take to shield up to 5 million immigrants illegally in the US from deportation.

When President Obama announces his move to shield up to 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation Thursday night, he will have flouted the dire warnings of Republicans.

From “poisoning the well” to “pouring kerosene on a fire,” GOP leaders have made clear that Mr. Obama’s unilateral executive action will make it difficult to find common ground on important issues, not just on immigration.

Obama is likely to gain enthusiasm and support from Latino voters and liberal activists – while also whetting their appetite for more action to help undocumented immigrants not covered by Thursday’s announcement.

At the same time, he could lose the support of other voters, unhappy with his go-it-alone approach. He may also alienate some low-income workers, usually among his strongest supporters. Among voters in households with incomes below $30,000, only 36 percent say they support Obama’s use of executive action on immigration, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Obama’s job approval overall is at 50 percent among that group.  

“Low-income voters may be concerned that the sudden legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants could flood the labor market, creating stiff competition for low-wage jobs,” writes Dante Chinni in the Journal.

Obama no longer faces voters, but his party does – and the immigration issue promises to be front and center in the 2016 elections. The Democratic nominee for president will inherit the results of Obama’s move. And Republicans will have fallout of their own. The GOP is more divided than the Democrats over the issue, and if congressional Republicans overreact to Obama’s maneuver – say, with another government shutdown or an impeachment effort, neither of which Republican observers expect at this point – the reverberations could be felt for years to come.

Clearly, the large, unformed Republican presidential field will contend with the issue, potentially creating a dynamic in which candidates push each other to the right, as happened in 2008 and 2012. Just as Mitt Romney became unappealing to a large majority of Latino voters two years ago, so too could the eventual GOP nominee in 2016.

In Congress, a Republican pledge not to work with Obama and the Democrats could sour public opinion even more than it already is toward the Republican brand. Republicans soon will control both houses of Congress, and they need to demonstrate they can govern, analysts say. That will mean working across the aisle with Democrats.

Those working in the trenches on immigration matters stress that the president is announcing a temporary measure, and that a long-term solution remains essential.   

“This is a band-aid,” says Dawn Lurie, an immigration lawyer at Polsinelli law firm in Washington. “We’ve got to be able to fill these essential or unskilled or semi-skilled positions in industries that don’t have enough US workers.”

“Then on the flip side,” Ms. Lurie adds, “we need to be able to admit the best and brightest. We’re educating kids and sending them back home to other countries to become our competitors. I think both sides of the aisle understand this.”

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