For months, the dynamics of immigration reform have kept President Barack Obama off balance. On one side, he needed to reassure immigration activists and Hispanic voters that he would expend significant political capital in their behalf. On the other, he had to be certain not to wrap himself so fully in the issue that it became exclusively identified with him. If he were too bold, House Republicans, ever mindful of the base's delicate feelings, would sink reform no matter how much it hurt them in the long run.
We've reached the end of that phase. Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an immigration reform stalwart, took to the House floor this week to declare the closing of the political frontier. "You're done," Gutierrez told Republicans, before descending into a long, clumsy soccer metaphor on how his conservative colleagues had just earned a "red card" for botching immigration legislation.
Absent the current crisis at the border with Mexico, Obama might have made his next step a big one. Activists have been pressuring him to extend protection from deportation to a larger class of undocumented immigrants, building on his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which made it possible for undocumented immigrants who arrived as children to gain a legal foothold in the United States.
But since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children, most of them from Central America, have wound up in the care of the U.S. government. An additional 39,000 mothers with children have crossed the border into U.S. custody over the same period.
The influx has changed the political calculations. The White House is still off balance, but even more awkwardly than before. Unlike the presence of 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the U.S., most of whom have been here for many years, the children's crisis both began, and escalated, entirely under Obama's administration.
Republicans, suddenly blessed with a fact that fits their pre-packaged narrative of a lawless president overseeing a besieged border, have what they've long lacked: ammunition.
Like his colleagues, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has achieved nothing on immigration. Now, however, he has 52,000 reasons why nothing can be done. He'll be traveling to the Rio Grande Valley next week to lambaste the administration for allowing the children's crusade to overrun Texas.
Obama is in a bind, and he won't be escaping it soon. He promised that if the House didn't act on immigration, he would. But if he eases deportations while thousands of alien kids are entering U.S. custody, he may well inspire a ferocity from House Republicans that we haven't seen since the days of the debt-ceiling fiasco. Only this time, Republicans will point to Obama's tardy response to a genuine crisis, rather than their own ideological make-believe, as the proximate cause.
"I think the administration made a tactical mistake by raising the expectations of immigration groups that Obama would act if the House didn't," said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a pro-immigration think tank with Democratic roots. By setting himself up as the alternative when and if legislation failed, Obama made himself a target of immigrant desires that he is almost certainly incapable of satisfying. He now faces a backlash from foes and friends alike.
Given the economy, and a recurring tendency to celebrate immigrants of the past while begrudging those of the present, Americans have been remarkably supportive of immigration reform with a path to legalization or citizenship. But they did not bargain for tens of thousands of undocumented children on the nation's doorstep.
Because they are children, they can't be promptly deported. They must have hearings and due process. That legal nexus of bureaucracy and humaneness provides an opportunity for demagoguery that Republicans have no desire, or even capacity, to resist.
Obama will be lashed by anti-immigrant opponents until the problem goes away. And he will be lashed by pro-immigrant friends as "Deporter in Chief" until he takes bold action to ease immigrants' plight. The nature of the problem is such that he can't make it go away. And he can't do anything else on immigration until he does. He's unlikely to be a popular guy anytime soon.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.