Bill Whalen

GOP should be smart, not petty, on immigration

On Thursday, President Barack Obama plans to issue his long-awaited executive order on immigration, setting off what likely will be a major stink-storm over the wisdom of his policy and the legality of his action.

The president will claim the high road, basing his edict on the perceived need to protect society’s most vulnerable men, women and children.

And the proper Republican reaction? There really shouldn’t be much of one, other than asking the courts to settle whether Obama overstepped his authority. Conservatives could rail against the specifics of the order. But to quote Admiral Ackbar of “Star Wars” fame, while flying into the teeth of the Imperial fleet: “It’s a trap.”

Not that Barack Obama is Darth Vader (though it would make for cool presidential entrance music), or that illegal immigration is a political death star (well, a black hole maybe). However, there’s something larger at stake here than a Democratic president’s thrust and a soon-to-be parry from a Republican Congress. In the simplest terms, it’s a memory test for the elephant party.

Any fight over the details of the Obama edict will quickly settle on two points. One, it probably won’t constitute “amnesty,” not in the strictest sense of pardoning a criminal offense. And two, most any Republican counterstrike – defunding federal programs, shutting down the government – will come across as petty and mean-spirited.

It would be political folly. Just ask Newt Gingrich and John Boehner, the two GOP House speakers who’ve been down this road, only to see their party wind up as political roadkill.

What then should Republicans do? Here are three suggestions:

First, turn the debate back to border security; the summer refugee crisis in Texas turned the tables on the immigration debate in the midterm election. The House passed a measure funding federal agencies dealing with the border crisis and reimbursing states that had sent National Guard troops to the border. It went nowhere in Harry Reid’s Senate; it likely enjoys a different fate with Mitch McConnell soon running the show.

Second, acknowledge that at the heart of the immigration debate is admission to the American Dream. That privilege has been abused in the nearly 150 years since the passage of the 14th Amendment and the recognition that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.”

Republicans should vow that any “comprehensive” immigration reform includes a re-examination of birthright citizenship. In California, that includes the insidious practice called “birth tourism,” whereby Chinese and Taiwanese pay as much as $30,000 to live in “maternity homes” and deliver babies who automatically become Americans citizens.

The third suggestion: As immigration also entails not just the pursuit, but the limitless height of the American Dream, Republicans should advocate for more newcomers having access to the greatest prize of all – the presidency of the United States.

As with tinkering with the 14th Amendment, trying to update Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution may be a legislative pipe dream (good luck finding 67 senators and 290 House members for the requisite two-thirds support required). But Republicans should be the ones siding with two deserving constituencies: 40-somethings who came to this country from war-torn Southeast Asia as infant refugees, and newborns adopted by American families from foreign lands.

Both groups are legally barred from running for president. Hardly agents of a foreign nation, they’re often more appreciative of this land than many multi-generation Americans.

For all the talk of politics being hardball, the better sports metaphor may be that of hockey. Be it striking a carbon-emissions deal with China, fiddling with Internet neutrality, or sometime soon issuing an immigration executive order, President Obama is a skater trying to goad conservatives into a brawl. If he gets congressional Republicans to drop their gloves first, they will get the harsher penalty from voters as the instigators.

If Republicans take the bait on this and other Obama ploys, it might as well be game over.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at