Immigration reform battle is about to get ugly

House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama meet after the mid-term election. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama are headed for a showdown over immigration

The post-mid-term era of good feelings is officially over. Its life span was measured in days, if not hours.

Pledges by both Republicans and Democrats to work together to tackle the nation's problems were never really taken seriously by anyone in Washington, but even that veneer of comity has been stripped bare, as battle lines quickly form over immigration reform.

The proximate cause of the impending "total war" between the parties, as Bloomberg's David Weigel puts it, is word President Barack Obama plans to take unilateral executive action on immigration policy.

The key aspect of the proposed plan that has leaked - or, more likely, was strategically floated by the White House - is expanding the current suspension of deportation to more children of illegal immigrants who were born in the US, as well as to the parents of legal US residents.

Depending on the length of time on US soil required to qualify, this "deferred action" could apply to as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants.

Other proposed components of the plan include an increase in the number of work visas in key industries and a boost in efforts to patrol the US-Mexico border.

Mr Obama said that his actions were necessary because Congress has failed to reform a broken immigration system, one that has created an underground economy of undocumented workers.

Republicans in Congress counter that any action he takes without Congress's approval will be an abuse of presidential power.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, writing in Politico magazine, says Mr Obama "must be stopped".

"On Election Day, Americans roared in protest against the president's open-borders extremism," he says. "But President Obama made clear that he would attempt to void the election results - and our laws - by moving forward with his executive amnesty decree... The president will arrogate to himself the sole and absolute power to decide who can work in the US, who can live in the US, and who can claim benefits in the US - by the millions."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption President Barack Obama reportedly intends to suspend the deportation of parents of legal US residents

Mr Sessions recommends using Congress's power over government funding to prevent implementation of Mr Obama's plans.

"US Citizenship and Immigration Services will have to be ordered to redirect funds and personnel away from its statutorily mandated enforcement duties and towards processing applications, amnesty benefits and employment authorisations for illegal immigrants and illegal overstays," he writes. "It is a massive and expensive operation. And it cannot be implemented if Congress simply includes routine language on any government funding bill prohibiting the expenditure of funds for this unlawful purpose."

That's not enough for conservative commentators like Red State's Erik Erickson, however. He recommends cutting funding for White House operations across the board. "Make him pay his own light bill," he writes.

"Rules should mean things," he says. "Laws should mean things. The president is taking a screwed up system and breaking it further, leaving many trapped in the system while excusing those who've taken matters into their own hands."

Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer has called Mr Obama's proposed immigration move an "impeachable offence".

Any attempt by Republicans to block executive action on immigration by tying it to must-pass government funding measures would risk a Democratic filibuster in the Senate or presidential veto. If such a standoff ensues, the result could be a replay of the government shutdown that occurred last fall, when Republicans tried similar tactics to repeal the president's healthcare reform law.

Senator Mitch McConnell, soon to be Senate majority leader, has pledged to avoid another such shutdown - which came at a high, albeit temporary, political cost to Republicans - raising the question of exactly how far Republicans will go to confront the president.

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Media captionObama: "Everybody agrees that the system is broken"

The Week's Peter Weber says the Republicans are bluffing - and the president should call them on it. Republican leaders contend that any unilateral action by the president will poison any chance of bipartisan legislation passing in Congress, he writes, but there was little chance of that anyway.

By digging in their heels, he says, Republicans only further threaten their standing with Latinos - a growing voting demographic.

"Republicans in Congress have every incentive to get stuff done, and every incentive to make nice with Latinos," he writes. "Obama has every incentive to show Latinos who has their back, and that means making Republicans carry out their pledge to try and block his small-bore executive actions."

If Mr Obama could lock down Latino support for a generation by his actions, writes MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin, "whatever backlash Obama risks in the next month, or year, or election cycle may seem small in retrospect".

Recent developments put Republican supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, like the Washington Post's Michael Gerson, in a quandary. He addresses the situation with a fatalistic sigh.

Republicans should have addressed immigration reform in 2007 under President George W Bush or in 2013, when the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that the House ignored. But he says their failures don't give Mr Obama the right to steamroll the legislative process - particularly coming off a resounding mid-term election defeat.

"Americans are about to be treated to a magnified version of everything they hate: overreach, backlash, deadlock, threats and lasting bitterness," he writes. "It is like a Shakespearean drama - without the interesting characters and quality dialogue."

The stage is set. The political bloodshed is about to begin.