After years of debate and division, President Obama announced Thursday that he would use his executive powers to revamp the nation's immigration system. But wait, you say, isn't that Congress' responsibility? Well, yes, it is, and if Congress had done its job, the nation wouldn't be at this juncture. But here we are.
On the substance, the president is absolutely right. The immigration system is broken and unfair; it has resulted in a permanent class of illegal workers, it separates families and it denies a place in society to immigrants who work hard, pay taxes and have deep ties to the country. There are 11 million immigrants living in the United States without authorization — more than 3 million in California alone — and it makes practical and moral sense to legalize their status and offer them a path to citizenship.
But even though Congress has been discussing these issues for more than a decade, it has repeatedly failed, for reasons both political and substantive, to move a bill through both houses. A frustrated Obama finally announced — after initially saying he lacked the legal authority — that he would act on his own. His decision will, we hope, offer some breathing room to millions of immigrant families who have been living under the threat of deportation. But it also raises serious questions about the limits of executive authority.
Under Obama's plan, the government will defer for three years the deportation of parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, if the parents pass a background check and have been in the country for five years. He will also expand the pool of so-called Dreamers — those who came to this country illegally as children — who are eligible for deferrals. He will not offer deferrals to their parents.
In all, some 5 million people could receive deferrals under the plan, including a million or so in California, and most will be eligible for work permits. Obama also will also tighten security at the border, put a new emphasis on deporting criminals and expand the number of work visas available to foreign students graduating from U.S. colleges.
People receiving deferrals will not be eligible for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, nor will they qualify for other federal programs, such as food stamps, that support low-income citizens, permanent residents and others here legally.
Those are welcome changes, for the most part. But the process by which Obama achieved them is troubling on several fronts. We dislike the ease with which he shifted from saying he lacked the authority to act — to acting anyway. While most presidents use their executive powers from time to time — and Obama has done so to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers and to protect federal employees from gender discrimination, among other things — his immigration plan is of a breadth and scale that may push the boundaries further than they've been pushed before. Liberals who approve of the president's action should remember what they thought when George W. Bush claimed executive authority to act without congressional approval; they were not pleased by what they perceived as an end run around the rule of law.
Obama's decision not to deport millions of people has been framed as an issue of “prosecutorial discretion,” but that seems disingenuous. Although it may be true that Congress has budgeted enough money for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to remove only 400,000 illegal immigrants a year — out of the pool of more than 11 million — scarce resources and setting priorities are not the issues here. The president is seeking to enact a policy that he has been unsuccessful in persuading Congress to support. That's not how policy should be made.
There are also pragmatic questions. The president's actions will theoretically allow millions of immigrants here illegally to come out of the shadows. But executive actions are easily reversible. What will happen after Obama leaves office in January 2017? For that matter, will immigrants today be willing to participate? Those who do so will be telling the government “Here I am,” acting on faith that the next president won't reverse course and use the deferral applications as a round-up list for deportations.
The president has made his decision, and we hope it works out for the best, offering welcome relief to immigrant families. But still, as Obama himself has noted, executive action will not bring final resolution to the problem. Fewer than half of those living in the country illegally will be helped by his actions, and those only temporarily. Related issues such as border security and what to do about illegal immigration in the future have not been fully addressed. And by acting unilaterally, the president has further antagonized Republicans, likely cementing their intransigence. ("Sticking your finger in the eye of a recently elected Republican Congress" is how Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee described Obama's move. House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio warned that the president was “playing with fire.”)
We understand the deep frustration felt by immigrants and their advocates, and we understand why Obama moved now. But this is an issue that must ultimately be solved legislatively, with all sides giving a little and getting a little. Comprehensive immigration reform hashed out through the political process remains the best and only long-term solution. A new Congress — a Republican-led Congress — will take office in January, and plenty of compromise by both the president and lawmakers will be necessary if progress is to be made on this terribly important issue.
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