For a legislative cadaver, U.S. immigration reform has been kicking up a fair amount of dust.
Pro-immigration activists have been protesting in front of the White House and lambasting President Barack Obama as the nation’s "deporter in chief." Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner made news last month in Ohio when he chastised his colleagues for being too timid to take up immigration legislation, then made news again when he returned to Washington and took it all back, placing blame, as usual, on Obama for the presence of the stiff on Boehner’s operating table.
But Obama should give Boehner and the House more time just in case. Then, once the patient is truly, surely, undeniably dead, the president should act. He has already directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review options for easing deportations. News reports suggest the administration will take modest steps, if it takes any at all. But it’s a bit late for small ball.
The demise of immigration reform would be a humanitarian failure as well as a political one. Millions of undocumented immigrants are locked in place, with deep roots in communities but limited ability to realize their full potential or contribute their full measure to the economy.
An estimated 4.4 million undocumented immigrants have children who are U.S. citizens. An additional 600,000 or so have spouses who are either American citizens or legal residents. Most have been in the United States for a decade or more. Many have jobs in addition to families.
These immigrants are rarely among the deported. Most expulsions occur within 100 miles of the Mexican border, often targeting recent arrivals. At the same time, removals from what the Department of Homeland Security categorizes as the nation’s "interior," more than 100 miles from the border, have actually declined in recent years. Still, thousands of otherwise law-abiding immigrants with legal family members are deported each year, and millions live under the threat of it.
Having already deferred deportations for "Dreamers" — young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — Obama should extend the policy on similar terms to undocumented immigrants with lengthy residencies in the U.S. and family members who are U.S. citizens or legal residents. The president’s power to ease deportations isn’t explicit. But he unquestionably has discretion in enforcement of immigration law. Some believe the extent of that discretion may be on par with a president’s pardoning power.
Such a broad exercise of prosecutorial discretion would surely not resolve the political battle over immigration. Indeed, it would incense the opposition and further polarize debate. Opponents would no doubt label such a move "amnesty" — and they would be correct. But what is their alternative? The possibility that the U.S. will deport 11 million undocumented immigrants is no more than a cruel fantasy. And all sides agree that the status quo is destructive, undermining both the rule of law and immigrants’ potential.
House Republicans who object to a new class of deportation deferrals have the means to alter it. It’s called legislation. A comprehensive immigration bill, with the imprimatur of Congress, remains by far the best possible outcome. A bipartisan majority of the Senate has already shown the way; the House need only follow suit.
Government shouldn’t be in the business of "tearing families apart who otherwise are law-abiding," Obama said. If there is a humane and credible rebuttal to that, we haven’t heard it.
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