Spare the child, spoil the well

Announcing that he will suspend the threat of deportation for about half of the nation’s 11 million undocumented migrants, President Barack Obama said, “our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it.” He could have taken out the word “immigration” and been just as correct.

Obama made a few disdainful remarks Thursday night about his opponents in Washington, but he mostly went over the heads of Congress and argued that it would be immoral to let the deportation machinery continue apace. He asked, “Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families and works together to keep them together?”

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The president’s action had been expected for months, and Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in April that it “will make it almost impossible to ever do immigration reform, because he will spoil the well to the point where no one will trust him.” The dismal prospects of Obama and Republicans reaching an agreement on any substantive issue, let alone immigration, has made Boehner’s warning seem hollow.

NPR has a quick description of what the new policy does: “Delays the deportation of the undocumented parents of children who are in the country legally, …protects any children who were brought to this country illegally before January 1, 2010, …[and] directs immigration officials to concentrate on deporting criminals and those who pose a threat to national security.” More detailed descriptions of the executive action are at the Washington Post and the New York Times.

At one point Thursday evening, Obama directly addressed the beneficiaries of the new policy: “If you’ve with been in America more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. That’s what this deal is." (A video of the president’s speech is here, and a transcript is here.)

Obama did not make any conciliatory remarks about the opposition party, instead saying, “for a year and a half now Republican leaders in the House have refused to allow that simple vote [on immigration reform]” and slyly referring to employers, rather than migrants, as the ones who “flout the rules.” (“Business owners who offer their workers good wages and benefits see the competition exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them far less.”)

The president risked the wrath of editorial writers and columnists by not genuflecting toward bipartisanship. He may have felt that the comments of Republican leaders (mostly made before the speech) would make any reference to “friends” on the other side of the aisle seem too comical.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner released “A Message Before The President’s Immigration’s Speech,” saying on the video, “The president has said before that ‘he’s not king’ and he’s ‘not an emperor,’ but he’s sure acting like one.” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said via press release, “I will not sit idly by and let the President bypass Congress and our Constitution,” inviting speculation on what actions Paul has in mind.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who will become majority leader in a few weeks, vowed, “Congress will act” (why start now?) and predicted, “I think the President will come to regret the chapter history writes if he does move forward.” Almost exactly one year ago, McConnell said something similar when Senate Democrats changed filibuster rules to allow judicial nominees to be approved with a mere majority of the vote: “You’ll regret this and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn had a more startling response, telling USA Today, “The country’s going to go nuts, because they’re going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president, and it’s going to be a very serious situation. ...You could see violence.” The precise manner of protest was left to the imagination, but some wags on Twitter suggested that anti-immigration activists could carry out gardening raids and invade restaurants to wash dishes. Not that Coburn had a lot of running room in coming up with negative consequences; he couldn’t warn, for example, that Republicans would refuse to allow a vote on raising the minimum wage—or anything Obama proposes—and make it sound new.

Even many legal scholars identified as conservative agree that Obama’s action is legal—“existing immigration laws give the president vast discretion to temporarily legalize an unlimited number of foreigners,” writes the Washington Examiner’s Shikha Dalmia.

As for the political repercussions, Obama’s action will surely be an issue in 2016, especially in the Republican presidential primaries. As with the Affordable Care Act, Republican candidates will be pressed on far they’ll go to roll back the policies of the Obama administration, even if it means introducing uncertainty to millions of families.

In another era, Obama would have to worry about the more conservative wing of his own party. But one clear message from this year’s election is that Democrats are not going to win many votes among Southern white voters any time soon, no matter what Obama does. The wipeout of Democratic candidates in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia (with another defeat almost certain in Louisiana next month) removed the possibility of a Senate faction that might have pleaded with Obama not to jeopardize their standing with conservative voters.

Toward the end of his speech, when he was surely preaching to the converted, Obama said, “Scripture tells us, we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too.”

The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru suggested this idealist language was incompatible with realistic immigration policy. He wondered if Obama is inadvertently encouraging “left wingers” to ask why only half the undocumented population is covered by the new policy: “To treat illegal immigrants as illegal immigrants is to 'oppress the stranger'—and we’re going to keep doing it to several million of them. The policy and the rhetoric are at war with each other. If the rhetoric is taken seriously, the limits will go.”

But the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson applauds the executive action:

What the media have largely failed to emphasize is that Obama’s order will be shaped almost entirely by the imperative of keeping parents with their children. …What the pundits have tended to overlook, as well, is the humanity behind Obama’s apparent willingness to act without congressional approval. Every year since Obama became president, the government has deported roughly 400,000 undocumented immigrants, with little regard to whether they’ve broken any law save crossing the border without papers or overstaying their visas—or whether their kids are wondering where their parents have gone.

Appeals to humanity don’t always work, and Obama would need a lot more than spiritual language to get a real reform bill—one that would provide a path to citizenship for longtime residents—though Congress. But since few believe such a bill can pass in the next two years, acting on his own compassion may be all the president can do.

Also see previous post, “Immigration: Big stone, little pond.”

Image from Wikipedia.

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