President Barack Obama speaks on the economy at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas.

President Barack Obama speaks on the economy at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas. Kye R. Lee/AP

Obama's Immigration Choices Will Define the Fate of Both Parties

Republican presidential contenders could face a difficult choice between infuriating primary voters and permanently alienating Hispanic voters.

Inflammatory as it's been, the debate over unaccompanied Central-American children crossing the U.S. border is only the warm-up for an approaching immigration confrontation with even greater stakes.

Regardless of how Congress handles his request for more border resources, President Obama is moving toward a historic—and explosive—executive order that will provide legal status to a significant number of the estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. One senior White House official says that while "what's happening at the border will provide atmospherics for the [president's] decision," it won't stop him from acting on the undocumented—probably before the midterm elections. The resulting collision over Obama's expected action could lastingly define both the Democratic and Republican parties for the burgeoning Hispanic population.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has followed a consistent strategy on immigration. He's toughened enforcement and aggressively pursued deportation, looking (as he acknowledged in a 2011 El Paso speech) to blunt the conservative argument that the U.S. must secure the border before addressing the undocumented. Obama's hard line, combined with the economic slowdown, has tightened the net. During George W. Bush's two terms, the best estimate has it, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. jumped by about 3 million; under Obama, there's been no increase. But while the tougher enforcement has angered liberal groups, it has failed to move House Republicans, 80 percent of whom represent districts that are whiter than the national average. After the Senate passed bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship in 2013, House Republicans shelved it—just as they did a similar bipartisan bill Bush helped shoulder through the Senate in 2006.

Polls consistently find broad support for such a package: In a Pew Research Center survey this week, 63 percent of whites, 71 percent of African-Americans, and 85 percent of Hispanics said those here illegally should be granted legal status after meeting certain requirements. But many House Republicans believe that in their right-leaning districts, the only voters who cast their ballots on the issue are those opposed to legalization.

When House Speaker John Boehner told Obama last month that his chamber would not act this year, the president announced that he would advance legalization through executive order. The unaccompanied-minor crisis complicated Obama's plan. This challenge is actually better understood as a refugee problem than an immigration one, since studies have found that most of the kids are fleeing neighborhood violence or family breakdown. Yet the surge of children has revived images of a broken border and pressured the president to again embrace tough enforcement measures.

Obama won't likely go as far as Republicans in retrenching the protections for unaccompanied Central-American children that Bush signed into law in 2008. But Obama has indicated he wants to return more kids immediately and then devote additional legal resources to more quickly adjudicating the remaining cases. There's a humanitarian case for this: The lengthy delays may be encouraging more children to make the dangerous journey. But the approach also reflects the White House's recognition that controlling the border is the necessary political precondition to completing an executive order to legalize many of the immigrants here illegally.

The president can't provide them citizenship without action by Congress. But using the same theory of "deferred action" that he employed in 2012 for children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, he could apply prosecutorial discretion to allow some groups of the undocumented (such as adults here illegally with children who are U.S. citizens) to obtain work permits and function openly. Though the administration is still debating the reach of Obama's authority, some top immigration advocates hope he could legalize up to half of the undocumented population.

Such a move would infuriate Republicans, both because the border crisis has deepened their conviction that any move toward legalization inspires more illegal migration and because the president would be bypassing Congress. They would likely challenge an Obama order through both legislation and litigation. Every 2016 GOP presidential contender could feel compelled to promise to repeal the order.

Those would be momentous choices for a party already struggling to attract Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership initiative at the conservative American Principles Project, warns that if Republicans "again fall for the trap" and try to overturn an Obama legalization plan without offering an alternative path to legal status, the party will condemn itself to another lopsided deficit among Hispanics—and to a likely defeat—in 2016. David Ayon, senior adviser to the polling firm Latino Decisions, says that if Republicans erupt against an Obama legalization initiative, it "could turn the Latino vote as ruggedly anti-Republican as the black vote."

On many fronts, Obama seems to be only reacting to events. But on immigration, as on other social issues such as gay rights and contraception, he is driving decisions that could shape the two parties for years—and cement the Democratic hold on the coalition of growing demographic groups that powered his two victories.