Obama, top officials playing fast and loose with the immigrants they are trying to help

Last week, Jeh Johnson, head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, encouraged a packed audience at the L.A. Central Library to step forward and take advantage of the Obama administration's expanded deferred action program, even going so far as to offer his own pen to a woman in the audience to encourage her to fill out an application.

Immigrants in the United States illegally can apply for the program by paying a fee and providing certain information and documentation about their stay, including, obviously, their current address. If approved, they would be immune from deportation – for the time being, anyway. This program would not lead to a green card.


Most of these people have been living in constant fear of coming in contact with the authorities lest they be sent back to their countries of origin, possibly splitting up their families, and they are skeptical of this not-quite-this-not-quite-that program.

"I think initially everybody was excited that President Obama came forward and actually did something within his powers. But there is also a lot of skepticism within the community," Debbie Cruz, an immigration lawyer in south Texas' Rio Grande Valley, told a local paper. Applicants don't know "if it is reversed, what would happen to them if they have already flagged themselves to immigration once they have filed their application. So, there is both excitement of having legal protections but the fear that they are still in limbo because it could easily be taken away from them."

Indeed, a federal judge in Texas issued a stay blocking the program this week. Obama administration officials plan to appeal.

Obama is asking some very poor people to take a very big risk. First, there's the fee: Applicants have to pony up a $465 payment just to be considered. If they are denied, they don't get it back.

Then there's the bigger, all too real chance that even if they are approved, their temporary permission to stay could be revoked  because of a change in the political winds. Next year, is, of course, an election year, and many of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination oppose what they call amnesty for immigrants here illegally. Does anyone doubt that if, say, Ted Cruz somehow moves into the White House that this program would continue? Anyone who thinks the federal government wouldn't use the information it collected through the application process to find and deport those without documents is naive to a fault.

It reminds me of Mao Tse-tung's "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom" speech in 1956, in which he urged Chinese citizens to openly criticize the Communist Party. Historians disagree about whether it was originally conceived as a cynical ruse to flush out dissidents, or if, once it was underway, party officials were unpleasantly surprised to discover that there was so much dissatisfaction. Whatever the case, what happened next is well-known: People who complained about the party were stripped of their jobs, evicted from their homes, sent to camps and sometimes even killed.

Ever since, it has been difficult even for would-be reformers to convince the Chinese that it's safe to come out and talk trash about the party.

Given the stakes, Obama and his top officials are playing fast and loose with the immigrants that they are trying to help – and yes, I really do think they are trying to help them. By yielding to his usual instinct toward compromise, the president is endangering people on the margins of society.

These don't need temporary, maybe possible help. They need the real thing: Permanent legal status.

Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @tedrall