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How Republicans can take control in the immigration debate

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio responds to

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio responds to President Barack Obama's intention to spare millions of illegal immigrants from being deported, a use of executive powers that is setting up a fight with Republicans in Congress over the limits of presidential powers, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

While even "Saturday Night Live" is skewering President Obama for his executive order granting de facto amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, Obama is the one having the last laugh. His move has put the GOP into a political corner, and Obama knows Republicans have few good options for pushing back on his lawlessness.

Obama relishes the prospect of a new government shutdown - so much so that he taunted Republicans with the prospect of one during his prime-time immigration address. Thankfully, Republicans appear not to be taking the bait. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas - the force behind the last shutdown - proposes avoiding a shutdown this time around by authorizing funding for government agencies one at a time - and then attaching a rider to the Department of Homeland Security funding bill that prohibits the use of tax dollars to carry out Obama's executive order.

"If the president is unwilling to [accept] funding for, say, the Department of Homeland Security without his being able to unilaterally defy the law, he alone will be responsible for the consequences," Cruz says.

Obama might be responsible, but Republicans will get the blame. It would be disastrous for the GOP to be seen as hampering the work of the Department of Homeland Security just as we face a growing threat from Islamic State terrorists - and could be catastrophic if, God forbid, we should suffer a terrorist attack. Moreover, how does it make sense to punish the president for failing to enforce our immigration laws by withholding funding for the agency responsible for securing our borders and our interior? Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

There is a better way for the GOP to turn the tables on Obama, by passing a rider limiting the president's executive order to those whom he says he wants to help - hard-working immigrants who have committed no crime other than coming to the United States to seek a better life.

In his address to the nation, Obama said he would focus on deporting "criminals, not children." But he is already writing the rules so loosely that many illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes will be allowed to stay in the country.

The administration's new guidelines prioritize the deportation of illegal aliens with felony convictions. But his regulations leave those convicted "of a 'significant misdemeanor' which for these purposes is an offense of domestic violence; sexual abuse or exploitation; burglary; unlawful possession or use of a firearm; drug distribution or trafficking; or driving under the influence" in a lower category of those to be deported, along with those convicted of other crimes "for which the individual was sentenced to time in custody of 90 days or more (the sentence must involve time to be served in custody, and does not include a suspended sentence)."

This is absurd. Prosecutors reach deals every day that allow people facing felony charges to plead down to misdemeanors in exchange for a guilty plea. The same goes for time served in custody. Those plea deals should not come with executive amnesty as well.

Furthermore, Congress should insist that illegal immigrants allowed to stay under Obama's executive action be barred from receiving certain taxpayer-funded benefits, such as welfare, food stamps, tax credits, Social Security and Medicare. Obama claimed in his immigration address that he wanted to help "immigrant fathers who worked two or three jobs without taking a dime from the government." If that is the case, then he should have no problem with legislation ensuring that is the case.

These two steps would have strong public backing. While a majority of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally, 77 percent oppose making them "eligible for government benefits such as Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid before they become citizens." And even those who believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay support the deportation of criminals such as child predators. Obama would have a very hard time explaining why he opposed the deportation of illegal immigrants convicted of, let's say, a violent misdemeanor against a child or a misdemeanor involving child pornography.

Some will object that such a course rewards Obama's lawless action. But it also has the benefit of affirming that those benefiting from Obama's amnesty do not have the privileges of legal permanent residents or citizens. And it puts Obama on the defensive, while putting Republicans squarely on the side of the American people.

A government shutdown should be off the table for the GOP. That means Republicans have two choices: Do nothing, save some meaningless symbolic action. Or take smart, targeted, popular steps that force Obama to scale back his executive order in ways he never intended.

That would be less than a complete victory, but it would be a victory nonetheless.

Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former Bush administration speechwriter, writes a weekly column for The Washington Post on foreign and domestic policy and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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