President Obama’s decision to allow as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. will pose a major test for Republican candidates running in the 2016 presidential election.
Under the new program, certain people living in the country illegally can begin applying in early 2015 for deportation relief and work permits, which last three years. Those permits will expire after Obama leaves office, so the next president will have to decide whether to renew the program or eliminate it.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership, said that question will put Republican contenders in a tough position during debates.
“This is a great Machiavellian political trap,” he said.
Aguilar said there is plenty of room for Republicans to criticize the president’s executive action. But if they don’t offer their own plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, they could risk further alienating Latino voters, who overwhelmingly support the president’s initiative.
Some potential candidates have followed that path. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the president’s move “ill-advised” but also demanded that Republicans in Congress pass their own immigration plan.
"It is time for Republican leaders in Congress to act,” he said in a statement. “We must demonstrate to Americans we are the party that will tackle serious challenges.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich opposes Obama’s decision to act alone, but he said that doesn’t absolve the GOP of its responsibility to offer an alternative. Kasich expressed openness toward offering undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, a proposal that could provoke many conservatives.
“I am not closed to it. You know why? Everybody in this country needs to feel like they have an opportunity,” he said at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association.
There’s a danger that candidates get pulled toward the right on the issue, as influential conservatives demand that Republicans do everything they can to stop Obama’s actions.
Three GOP governors who could seek the party’s presidential nomination, Texas’ Rick Perry, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, have floated the possibility of suing the president to stop the deportation relief program.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a possible 2016 candidate, has said that Republicans should block Obama’s nominees and cut off funding for the program in order to force Obama’s hand.
Now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, leaders will need to show they can balance their opposition with Obama and craft a positive agenda, according to Aguilar, who led U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under George W. Bush.
"The American public is expecting Republicans to govern,” he said. "If Congress doesn't pass anything, whoever the Republican candidate is, he or she is going to be handicapped by Congress not acting."
Obama’s order could help rally Latino voters behind Democrats in the next election. A Latino Decisions poll sponsored by immigrant-rights groups showed nine in 10 Latino registered voters backed Obama’s action. Hillary Clinton, the early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination embraced Obama’s move, as did other candidates like Martin O’Malley.
Aguilar dismissed Obama’s go-it-alone approach as a naked attempt by the president to “appease his political base.” But he acknowledged a vitriolic response from Republicans could cost them at the polls.
"I think there is an incentive to act,” he said. “We need to do better with Latino voters."
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.