By the time President Obama addressed the nation about immigration Thursday night, the centerpiece of his executive action was old news: He would protect from deportation millions of immigrants in the country who have lived here for at least five years and whose children are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
The most curious aspect of the proposal was what it didn’t contain: deferral of deportation for the parents of the so-called Dreamers, children brought to this country illegally by their parents.
Two years ago, Obama protected many Dreamers from deportation with his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, and the Dreamers hoped that he would extend the same consideration to their parents.
They were disappointed. In his speech, Obama said that “I’ve seen the heartbreak and anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken away from them just because they didn’t have the right papers.” Yet by failing to protect the Dreamers’ parents, he is – theoretically, anyway – creating the possibility of just the sort of heart-rending scene he described.
So what happened?
Apparently the White House considered deferring deportation of the Dreamers’ parents, too, but ran into a roadblock from the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department. The head of that office, Karl R. Thompson, concluded that “the proposed deferred action program for parents of DACA recipients would not be a permissible exercise of enforcement discretion.”
Why not? It all has to do, amazingly enough, with congressional intent. The Office of Legal Counsel memo notes that many provisions of immigration law “reflect Congress’ general concern with not separating individuals who are legally entitled to live in the United States from their immediate family members. But the immigration laws do not express comparable concern for uniting persons who lack lawful status (or prospective lawful status) in the United States with their families.”
Wait -- didn’t Obama legalize the Dreamers two years ago? No, all he did was defer their deportation and make them eligible to work in the U.S. The memo cites language from a “toolkit” for Dreamers that says: “Deferred action ... does not provide you with a lawful status.”
This seems like hairsplitting. The Office of Legal Counsel is straining out a gnat (the difference between parents of Dreamers and parents of U.S. citizens) while swallowing a camel (the fact that Obama is initiating a major change in immigration law without congressional buy-in).
As a practical matter, Dreamer parents who don’t also have a U.S. citizen child aren’t likely to be deported. Even so, their exclusion from the president’s new initiative is inconsistent with Obama’s comments about keeping families together. No wonder the Dreamers are upset.
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