Yes He Can, on Immigration

Editorial Board, New York Times, April 6, 2014

If President Obama means what he says about wanting an immigration system that reflects American values, helps the economy and taps the yearnings of millions of Americans-in-waiting, he is going to have to do something about it—soon and on his own. It has been frustrating to watch his yes-we-can promises on immigration reform fade to protestations of impotence and the blaming of others. All Mr. Obama has been saying lately is: No, in fact, we can’t, because Republicans and the law won’t let me.

Mr. Obama is correct when he complains that long-term immigration repairs have been throttled in Congress. Neo-nativist Republicans fixated on mass deportation have blocked a worthy bipartisan bill. But Mr. Obama has compounded this failure by clinging to a coldblooded strategy of ramped-up enforcement on the same people he has promised to help through legislation that he has failed to achieve.

With nearly two million removals in the last five years, the Obama administration is deporting people at a faster pace than has taken place under any other president. This enormously costly effort was meant to win Republican support for broader reform. But all it has done is add to the burden of fear, family disruption and lack of opportunity faced by 11 million people who cannot get right with the law. Because of Mr. Obama’s enforcement blitz, more than 5,000 children have ended up in foster care.

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Those who would qualify for legalization under a Senate bill passed last summer—people who do not pose criminal threats, who have strong ties to this country and, in many cases, have children who are American citizens—should not be in danger of deportation. The one recent bright spot in Mr. Obama’s immigration record has been his decision, made on firm legal ground, to defer for two years the deportations of young people who would have qualified for legal status under the stalled Dream Act.

These immigrants, known as Dreamers, are a sympathetic group, and Mr. Obama’s move to protect them was timely and wise. But millions of other unauthorized immigrants are just as vulnerable and no less worthy. There is no good reason not to extend similar relief to the Dreamers’ parents, or to the parents of citizen children and others who pose no threat and should likewise be allowed to live and work here while efforts to pass reform continue.

Besides deferring some deportations, the administration should adopt an array of policy changes, no matter what Congress does. Mr. Johnson needs to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol to make noncriminals and minor offenders the lowest deportation priorities. This has been tried before, through a series of “prosecutorial discretion” memos that have had little positive effect.

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The administration needs to find ways to turn off the deportation machinery when it gets abused. It should end programs like Secure Communities that enlist local police as immigration enforcers. When immigrants assert their civil and labor rights against abusive employers, it should protect them from deportation and retaliation.

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These and other reforms should not be confused with a comprehensive overhaul of immigration, which only Congress can achieve. But they are ways to push a failing system toward sanity and justice.

Mr. Obama may argue that he can’t be too aggressive in halting deportations because that will make the Republicans go crazy, and there’s always hope for a legislative solution. He has often seemed like a bystander to the immigration stalemate, watching the wheels spin, giving speeches and hoping for the best.

It’s hard to know when he will finally stir himself to do something big and consequential.

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