Obama immigration action: Is it about people, or process?

To President Obama, the immigration overhaul he announced in a speech Thursday night is focused on people. To the GOP, the attention of the nation should be focused on how he took action. This tension will define the coming political immigration war.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP
Oregonians watch President Obama's announcement about immigration relief at the Center for Intercultural Organizing in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. Tens of thousands of immigrants who lack legal status and live in Oregon will be eligible for protection from deportation and a federal permit to work legally under Obama's plan.

To President Obama, the sweeping immigration overhaul he announced in a speech to the nation on Thursday night is focused on people. It’s about helping the people who pick our fruit, build our bridges, and clean our houses come out from the shadows. It’s about allowing mothers and fathers to stay with their children.

“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families and works to keep them together?” Mr. Obama said in perhaps the most emotion-laden passage of his address.

To newly empowered Republicans, the attention of the nation should be focused on the president's process on immigration. Obama does not lawfully have the power to order changes to the extent that he did, in their view. It’s an abuse of the governmental system established by the Founding Fathers that could set a dangerous precedent for presidents to come.

“The president seems intent on provoking a constitutional crisis by adopting policies that he previously said were illegal,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas.

It’s this juxtaposition – people versus process – that will define the coming political immigration war. And war it will be, rhetorically speaking. Obama has set off an explosion as the GOP readies to take control of both chambers of Congress in 2015 by doing something that infuriates them on an issue they warned him to leave be.

In part, that is because their party may be divided by the response. Establishment Republicans have tried to rule out using the congressional power of the purse to shut down the government in response to the immigration actions. But the conservative tea party wing of the GOP sees that as a lack of conviction, not prudence.

“If the GOP really thought this were a constitutional crisis, they would act like it,” writes conservative commentator Erick Erickson Friday on his personal blog.

Obama’s announcement on Thursday was the culmination of months of emotional buildup in Washington on the immigration issue. In the end, his moves were slightly less sweeping than some had hoped, or feared.

As expected, the centerpiece was an order that the undocumented parents of children who are American citizens or have green cards are protected from deportation and eligible for green cards for at least three years. Under this provision, the children do not have to be minors, but the parents must pass a background check.

Obama also extended the deadline for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which he launched in 2012. This program shields from deportation minors who were brought here illegally as children. Previously, the children in question had to have arrived in the United States prior to 2007; Obama on Thursday extended that to 2010.

However, the parents of DACA kids are not eligible for deportation relief under Obama’s actions. The Department of Justice ruled that was a step too far for presidential power.

Obama also said he would replace the Secure Communities program, which hands people arrested for local crimes over to federal authorities. He vowed to increase resources to protect the border and try to keep more undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

“We shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger: We were strangers once, too,” said Obama in his speech, in a biblical reference.

The executive actions could save about 5 million from deportation, at least for the time being.

As a political matter, Obama’s focus on the human impact of his moves is understandable. Americans take a favorable view of immigration in general, and large majorities of US citizens say they would take a lenient approach to undocumented immigrants – again, in general.

A 2013 Pew poll found that 71 percent of respondents said there should be a way for those in the country illegally to stay, for instance.

By the same measure, the GOP response is understandable. The public may be forgiving toward people, but it’s not happy about the process Obama has used.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds 38 percent of respondents approve of Obama taking executive action on immigration, while 48 percent oppose it.

“Not surprisingly, these numbers largely break along partisan lines: 63 percent of Democrats approve of Obama taking executive action here, versus just 11 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of independents,” writes NBC’s Mark Murray.

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