This week's Supreme Court deadlock on immigration was unfortunate for a number of reasons, beginning with how it ensures the nation's dysfunctional immigration system remains in full, chaotic status quo for the near-term. But it also accomplishes something else — it should focus voter attention on immigration in the U.S. presidential race, and while that's an issue that's stirring to core supporters of Donald Trump, it could actually serve the interests of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton much better.
First, a reminder of what the Supreme Court actually did. With its 4-4 split, the justices were unable to make a decision regarding the injunction imposed last year by a U.S. District Court judge in Texas blocking President Barack Obama's executive action that shielded millions of parents from deportation. These are working people who may have entered the country illegally but are raising kids who were born here. The president's action had also expanded the protections offered the undocumented who come here as children under age 16, and that, too, is on hold.
Make no mistake, this didn't mean President Obama necessarily lacked the prosecutorial discretion to make deporting criminals a higher priority than deporting parents of legal residents. This decision doesn't impact policy, only the temporary injunction. Now, it's up to lower courts to decide the issue as a matter of law since a deadlocked Supreme Court failed to set precedent — which, incidentally, is a vivid reminder of how the choice of GOP Senate leadership not to even hold hearings on Merrick Garland, Mr. Obama's nominee to fill Justice Antonin Scalia's seat, leaves a vacancy that will hamstring the nation's highest court for a year or more.
Forget the pundits who spin this decision as a blow to President Obama's legacy, because he will leave office with the nation's immigration policy about as unsettled as when he first took office (despite his campaign assurances to the contrary). The more important political consequence is how the immigration issue could affect the race for president — and provide Republicans with a serious Mitt Romney flashback.
Let's face it, there's a pretty sharp line to be drawn on immigration policy between Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton. Mr. Trump has spoken incessantly about his desire to build a wall along the nation's southern border paid for by Mexicans, whom he has disparaged as murderers and rapists. Ms. Clinton has staked out a position on immigration similar to Mr. Obama's — and she decried the Supreme Court's inaction on Texas v. United States as a "stark reminder of the harm Donald Trump would do to our families, our community, and our country."
Given that Ms. Clinton's path to an Electoral College majority is to replicate the Obama coalition, the question is not how the Supreme Court decision plays out in solidly red states but what independent voters in potential swing states think of it. A poll released last week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute suggests strongly that it works against Mr. Trump. Among Americans who identify themselves as independent, 78 percent said people who have entered this country illegally should be allowed to become U.S. citizens with just 21 percent favoring deportation, and the overall public feels about the same.
That's right. For all the nonsense that spews forth from those Trump rallies, most voters aren't buying into all that closing-the-borders rhetoric and dog-whistle racism. This is exactly what Mitt "Self-deport 11 million immigrants" Romney discovered much to his chagrin four years ago when he ended up with a mere 27 percent of the Latino vote, the second lowest ever recorded for a major presidential candidate. Given that Latino voters represent 28 percent or more of the electorate (and growing), that's a serious problem for Republicans with White House aspirations.
No doubt GOP candidates running for office who aren't named Trump — at least those outside the Deep South — would just as soon not have immigration be the focal point of the election. Most fair-minded Americans simply want a sensible and humane federal policy that protects communities and families alike and helps bring those 11 million people out of the shadows. That doesn't require a wall costing billions of dollars, it requires comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for those undocumented who are contributing positively to our society. Clinton supporters should thank the Supreme Court for such a valuable, if ineffectual, non-decision decision.