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SCOT LEHIGH

Immigration ball is in the GOP’s court

In the autumn argument over immigration, the talk is of empathy, ideals, and principles, but a tug-of-war for political advantage better explains the tension.

By prioritizing enforcement in a way that protects nearly 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation, President Obama has made the Democratic Party their champion. That group itself obviously isn’t eligible to vote, but the president’s actions won’t be lost on the Hispanics who are. That group, which now numbers about 25 million or around 11 percent of total eligible voters, is expected to hit 40 million by 2030, according to projections by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Nor is it any mistake that Obama acted when he did. The voters he’s courting turn out in higher numbers in presidential elections. The groups more likely to oppose his move — older, whiter, more conservative voters — are more heavily represented in midterm elections.

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With Republicans hoping to make Democrats pay at the polls for the president’s action, Obama delayed the announcement until shortly after the midterms. That wasn’t enough to stave off stinging Democratic setbacks. But with the next electoral focus the 2016 presidential election, it’s now the Republicans who are in an awkward political spot — and both sides know it.

A significant segment of the GOP’s conservative and Tea Party base is opposed to any action that lets any illegal immigrants stay. Yet as Mitt Romney discovered in 2012, if a presidential candidate alienates Hispanic voters, he or she faces a much steeper path to the presidency.

As long as Republican officeholders could quietly block legislation accommodating immigrants here illegally, they could at least try to finesse the issue. But Obama has now made that much harder.

A GOP base infuriated by the president’s initiative wants confrontation on the issue. But taking action to reverse Obama’s new policy means alienating the growing bloc of Hispanic voters.

Now, some Republicans genuinely had hoped to address the problem in a bipartisan way, but that’s proved politically impossible, given the passions illegal immigration ignites on the right.

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Just look at recent history. John McCain, who once worked with Ted Kennedy on bipartisan immigration reform, was forced to back off during the 2008 Republican primary campaign. Texas Governor Rick Perry sparked conservative outrage in the 2012 GOP primary cycle by saying that those who opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants “don’t have a heart.”

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, a possible 2016 candidate, has already earned the ire of GOP Tea Partiers by suggesting that illegal immigrants who broke the law to bring their children to the US did so out of “an act of love.”

It is, in other words, very difficult for a Republican to be in any way sympathetic to illegal immigrants and remain in good standing with the GOP base. That’s true even though it would prove both very expensive and exceedingly difficult to deport all the illegal immigrants now here.

The answer, conservative opponents insists, is to make this country inhospitable enough that those here illegally will, as Romney put it in 2012, “self-deport.” (Although that term is sometimes treated as Romney’s own coinage, it has long been in use among those dead-set against letting illegals stay.)

The GOP can’t be honest about its political dilemma, of course. Instead, Republican leaders are framing this struggle as a matter of executive usurpation of Congressional authority and of a president acting like a king. Obama’s own past words lend them some ammunition there, but given that 1) Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush issued similar executive orders; and 2) Congress can reverse or modify Obama’s action by passing legislation, it’s hard to see that argument going anywhere legally.

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Fuming Congressional Republicans now warn that by doing as he’s done, Obama has destroyed any chance for bipartisan cooperation. That would certainly be a consequence worth considering — if such a spirit had previously been in evidence.

But it has certainly never infused Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Although House Speaker John Boehner has occasionally seemed so inclined, the House’s conservative GOP caucus simply hasn’t been willing to abide that kind of cooperation.

From a Democratic point of view, then, Obama hasn’t sacrificed anything. Rather, he’s traded a mirage for an oasis.

Or, to put it another way, the president has essentially said to the GOP: I’ve granted these protections. Take them away if you want. The ball is now squarely in your court.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.