Some thoughts on President Obama's immigration speech and the action he announced:
It was a pretty good speech in talking about the positives of immigration and about American values. If he had given it six years ago, he might have been able to get immigration reform through Congress at a time when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate.
From a policy point of view, the situation created by Obama's action — creating a class of 4 million or so people who have better-than-illegal status, but worse than fully legal status — is problematic.
Republicans are upset about it as an overreach of executive power. They may want to be careful about that, because a day will come some time when the Republicans control the White House and the Democrats control Congress, and it will be the Democrats trying to constrain the executive power of a Republican president. Remember when Senator Schumer went after President George W. Bush for firing U.S. attorneys? It is true that no president has the power, under the Constitution, to rewrite any law — on immigration or any other topic — on his own. But it is also true that prosecutors use discretion all the time in deciding which enforcement actions to prioritize. The end of pressing Congress to act on the issue probably does not justify the means of extraordinary executive action.
If Congressional Republicans are upset about it, nothing is stopping them from passing a law that says "The government shall spend not a single cent on registering illegal immigrants for the purpose of granting them non-deportation status." There's some whining from Congressional Republicans that because the immigration agency is funded by fees rather than by taxes, Congress lacks the power to enforce that sort of law. I don't buy that analysis; for more on the issue, see Sean Davis in the Federalist: "Republicans Can Defund Obama's Executive Order, They Just Don't Want To."
A better way to solve this problem would be borders that are much more open to legal immigrants, together with a welfare and entitlement system that is less extravagant (so that there's less concern about paying for social services for poor immigrants).
There's a case to be made that Obama should have just gone ahead and deferred deportation for certain illegals quietly, without making a big speech about it. That would have let him have the policy, but not created the draw for new illegal immigrants or so pointedly picked a fight with Republicans in Congress. But Obama likes speech-giving — it's one of the few things he is, at times, highly competent at, and he's well aware of that.
On Obama's watch, and that of Congressional Republicans, the immigration debate has shifted in an unfortunately nativist direction since the days of George W. Bush's presidency. Back then, the fight was mainly over a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Bush was in favor of it; the anti-immigrant side was against it. Now, President Obama's action stops short of a path to citizenship for illegals. And the anti-immigrant camp thinks that even that is going way too far. I'm ready for the commenters to explain that "anti-immigrant" is not the right term — it's pro-rule-of-law, or pro-legal-immigration. Maybe so, but to me the big immigration problem the country faces is underpopulation and low growth, and the solution is more human capital. Too many Republican politicians don't articulate that part of the issue — the only time they talk about immigration is in the context of attacking Obama for "amnesty." I suppose I can see how the amnesty alarm fits with an overall theme of a president who writes his own law, including on health care. But the chance that some illegal immigrants might become regular Americans just isn't something that causes me a lot of worry; on the contrary, like Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, I think it'd be a positive development.