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The Immigration Debate Takes a Surprising Twist

When was the last time Chait and McArdle agreed on anything?


The big controversy over what President Obama can do on immigration is dividing opinion writers in some unusual ways.

The central, most controversial debate right now is whether Obama can give some undocumented workers a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation along with a chance to obtain legal working papers—in effect, what he did for the “DREAMers” two years ago. On one side you have writers who worry that such action would represent a dangerous power grab by the president, the kind that would definitely be unwise and might even be illegal. Two frequent Obama Administration critics from the right, Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View, have made different versions of this case. Now Jonathan Chait, the liberal New York magazine columnist who’s frequently among Obama’s staunchest supporters, has made a similar argument of his own.

I know the work of all three writers extremely well. I’m pretty sure this is the first time they have come this close to agreeing on anything.

On the other side of the debate, clearly more sympathetic to sweeping presidential action, you have liberals like my New Republic colleague Brian Beutler—along with Shikha Dalmia from the Washington Examiner and Jonathan Adler from Case Western Law School. Does Adler’s name sound familiar? It should. He’s one of the two people who thought up and wrote the brief that evolved into the latest lawsuit against Obamacare. At the heart of that lawsuit is a claim that the Obama Administration has overstepped its authority, a claim Adler has made in plenty of other contexts. But he’s not making it here. Both he and Dalmia, who is a senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, believe immigration law gives the president unusually broad leeway to set priorities about enforcement. Based on what they’re reading and hearing in the press, they say, the president will be acting well within his authority.

Immigration is a complicated issue that frequently divides otherwise like-minded people. The same goes for questions of presidential power. That helps explain these unusual groupings. And if you’re wondering which side of the current debate you’ll find me, the answer is the same one I gave last week: Check back in a little while.

Oh, I have thoughts on some of the narrower questions this debate raises. But on the overall debate, I remain decidedly undecided. Among other things, I’m still learning about the specifics of our immigration laws, some of which have been on the books for a very long time, and how they compare to laws in other policy areas. I also want to see what the president actually proposes.

Speaking of, I'm not sure the political debate right now captures the full range of possibilities for what might happen. The assumption in many places is that Obama will propose something massive and totally unprecedented, angering the Republicans and all but daring them to go wild with impeachment talk. I’m not sure Obama is so eager to test those limits.

If I wanted to be generous, I’d say he takes the rule of law as seriously as his critics do. If I wanted to be more cynical, I’d say he cares about his legacy too much to even flirt with impeachment. Either way, Obama could end up proposing something that falls short of the ambitious notions floating around in the press right now. It would still anger the right, I'm sure, but it might upset some folks on the left, too.

—Jonathan Cohn

FERGUSON, the latest: In the St. Louis suburb, there were more protests, plus calls for authorities to release the name of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. In Washington, President Obama issued a statement calling for reflection, calm, and conversation. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, National Public Radio)

FERGUSON, the scenes: Photos of Missouri police in riot gear and military-grade equipment look terrifyingly like what American soldiers would wear. The last image in this piece is pretty unbelievable. (Paul Szoldra, Business Insider)

FERGUSON, the demographics: Segregation created Ferguson, the northern St. Louis suburb which consists of 69 percent African Americans. Its police force isn't representative: Just three of its 53 police officers are black. (New York Times)

OBAMACARE: The Administration has worked its way through the majority of the application “inconsistencies” related to residency and so far virtually all have turned out to be paperwork issues. But some 310,000 people still haven’t completed the verification process. If they don’t by September 5, they could lose their coerage. (Sarah Kliff, Vox)

KENTUCKY SENATE RACE: The campaign to unseat Mitch McConnell has taken a strange turn. Democrats are accusing McConnell of working to kill the coal industry. (Chris Moody, Yahoo News)

Things worth reading:

We’re making progress on mental illness, but not enough. People know a lot more about psychiatric problems than they did even a few years ago. But, Jason Millman explains, the stigma of mental illness remains very well. (Wonkblog)

They call this the “woodwork” effect. Medicaid rolls are swelling even in those states that didn’t expand the program, because Obamacare is encouraging people to sign up—and, in the process, drawing out people who were previously eligible but didn’t realize it. Margot Sanger-Katz has the story. (The Upshot)

We’re learning more about how much damage leaded gasoline did. Kevin Drum has written extensively and persuasively about the links between lead exposure during childhood and violent crime later in life. Now he’s highlighting a new study that establishes a similar correlation between lead exposure and teen pregnancy. (Mother Jones)

Uh, really? A new study suggests that men are more likely to use the expression “uh” while women are more likely to say “um.” The data isn’t the most reliable, but Melissa Dahl reports one interpretation: Men use the saying as a placeholder, while women are sending more sophisticated subliminal signals about the conversation. Uh, ok. (Slate)

Stories we’ll be watching:

The Ferguson controversy—it’s not going away.


Are police officers more likely to shoot black people? Rebecca Leber looks at research, based on video games, that suggest the answer is yes. Also don’t miss Franklin Foer’s essay about what to do with the unaccompanied minors who have come from Central America. Frank thinks we should let them stay.