President Obama is acting on immigration reform because of the inaction of one man: John Boehner.
The House speaker refuses to allow even a vote on a bipartisan — it still happens occasionally — comprehensive Senate immigration bill that passed by a 68 to 32 vote nearly eighteen months ago. The Senate measure aimed to fix the nation’s broken and chaotic immigration system, and Boehner knows it would pass in his chamber through the combined votes of most Democrats and the few Republicans remaining who still understand that they were sent to Washington to solve the nation’s problems.
Boehner’s fear of the rightwing members of his caucus prevents him from bringing the bill to the floor. He knows the bigots — there is no other word for them — who dominate the Republican conference might remove him from his job, which he apparently likes more than doing the right thing.
That’s Boehner’s problem, not the nation’s, which is why the president is signing an executive order protecting millions of law-abiding, hardworking undocumented immigrants from deportation.
It’s the right thing to do. Obama’s order will keep families intact, allowing the undocumented parents of children born in the United States, who are American citizens by law, to remain in this country and receive work permits. Keeping families together is a humanitarian gesture. The Pew Research Center reports that about 13 percent of the schoolchildren in the populous states of California and Texas have at least one undocumented parent. That’s a lot of parents; in the past, they lived in fear of deportation. No longer.
The justification for the president’s action lies in the doctrine of “prosecutorial discretion,” the notion that law enforcement officials do not enforce every law all the time. Not all jay walkers are ticketed, nor are all who drive a few miles over the speed limit. The same holds for drug offenders.
The same rule applies to undocumented workers. Congress has provided Obama with the discretion to enforce immigration law, and it has voted the resources to deport about 350,000 to 400,000 people a year, which he has done, ruthlessly some say. Nearly two million people have been expelled on his watch. Those deported often broke no laws except crossing the border without papers or overstaying their visas. Nor has the administration been concerned whether those forced out of the United States left behind young children.
Deportations will continue, only now they will affect only those who have criminal records or who are in other ways a threat to national security. Obama’s executive order acknowledges a practical reality: The government’s limited resources should be applied to acting in instances where undocumented immigrants pose a threat to public safety. “We’ll prioritize,” the president announced Thursday night, “just like law enforcement does every day.”
Who to deport has always been at the president’s discretion (Congress could have authorized funds to expel all 11 million undocumented immigrants; it has declined to do so). The Supreme Court declared in United States v. Nixon, “The Executive Branch has exclusive authority and absolute discretion to decide whether to prosecute a case.”
Politics also dictated that Obama had to act. He promised Latino voters to work with Congress for comprehensive reform; in the absence of congressional action, he then pledged to act unilaterally. That promissory note is now due. Latino voters are a large and fast-growing segment of the Democratic coalition; they helped elect the president twice. “The road to the White House comes through the [Hispanic] community in critical states,” says Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
Former housing secretary Henry Cisneros points out that in the long run there is little downside to the president’s action. Beneficiaries will be grateful for generations, while opponents will scream about executive overreach and threaten government shutdowns and impeachment, but probably accomplish little. “While the breadth of anger will be wide, the intensity of the benefits will be deep,” Cisneros notes.
Executive actions are not uncommon. Theodore Roosevelt, an activist and progressive Republican president, issued 1,081, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democratic progressive, drafted 1,803. Franklin Roosevelt leads the pack with 3,522 executive orders. Even such a conservative stalwart as Ronald Reagan signed 381, significantly more than Obama’s 193 to date.
The most famous executive order, of the thousands presidents have issued, is Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln signed the order, which committed the nation to freeing the slaves, on New Year’s Day 1863. When Lincoln picked up his pen, after shaking hands with hundreds of well-wishers, his arm was shaking. “I could not for a moment control my arm,” he later said. “I paused and a superstitious feeling came over me which made me hesitate.” Was the order a mistake? No, he had hesitated because if his signature appeared wobbly, people might think he had doubts. “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right.”
John Boehner’s refusal to do right has forced President Obama act.