Next month, while Congress is out on vacation for the August recess, President Obama will act on his own — most likely in the form of an executive order — to offer relief to millions of undocumented immigrants currently living under threat of deportation. “I’m beginning a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress,” the president told reporters in the Rose Garden on Monday. The announcement comes a week after House Speaker John Boehner told Obama immigration reform would not get a vote in the chamber this session.
You can already see the steam shooting out of Tea Partyers’ ears. As House Republicans prepare to sue the administration — ironically, for extending an Obamacare deadline they’d prefer he’d have blown off altogether — and right-wing groups demonstrate against illegal immigration around the country, the president’s unilateral action is bound to ramp up calls for his impeachment. The move will also likely affect the midterm elections, in which 21 of the 35 seats up for grabs are held by Democrats.
Obama should go it alone anyway — and go big. Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which started in 2012, the administration has already granted two-year deportation deferrals and work permits to more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors. Under one proposal the White House is considering, their parents would get the same treatment; another would grant relief to those with U.S.-citizen children.
But either of these options would only cover about 5 million of the 9 million who would have qualified for legalization under the immigration bill the Senate passed last year. If indeed the president seeks to address as much of the problem as he can on his own — and since the whole point is to remedy the House’s failure to act on the Senate bill — there’s no principled reason his executive order shouldn’t cover the full 9 million. Any short-term political consequences are far outweighed by the long-term support such a move will garner among Latino voters. But more important, it’s the only sensible policy alternative short of congressional action.
For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of our immigration system, such broad action on the part of the president may seem like an overreach. But that’s because, while it’s commonly said our immigration system is “broken,” most members of the public have no idea just what a disaster it is. That’s largely because all most of us had to do to become citizens was be born.
At heart, the presence of 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country today is not a failure of enforcement. It’s a policy failure. The last time Congress amended our country’s immigration laws — in 1996 — it failed to anticipate our economy’s demand for unskilled labor. While many other countries have standing commissions that adjust quotas to respond to the economy and broader migration trends, the U.S.’s approach has been to set the rules every 20 years or so and undergo a massive overhaul only once the system is falling apart.
The economic expansion of the 1990s created demand for millions of unskilled jobs, largely in the service and construction industries. But our immigration system only allots a total of 5,000 visas for unskilled workers per year. No, that’s not a typo, and that’s not per country — that’s overall.
The U.S. does offer an unlimited number of temporary work authorizations for low-skilled workers in the agriculture industry, and up to 66,000 temporary permits for low-skilled workers in other fields. But besides needing a job offer before coming to the U.S., these short-term permits must be renewed every year. They also require you to leave the country every three years. But even the temporary work authorizations are insufficient to meet demand — we reach the 66,000 cap for low-skilled, non-agricultural workers almost as soon as the filing period starts. And the truth is most of those who work in the U.S. for years on end — those who’ve built a life here — will want to stay. Neither of these work authorizations offer you the chance to become a citizen.
So when someone says, “I’m fine with legal immigration; it’s illegal immigration I don’t like,” that should be your first clue they have no idea what they’re talking about. Because for low-skilled workers, we’ve made it basically impossible to immigrate legally. When your Italian or Irish great-grandfather came to America, we didn’t have these crazy restrictions in place.
With economic demand so high and immigration levels set so low, what’s happened? Immigrants and employers alike simply went around the system — and, contrary to popular belief, most people didn’t sneak across the border; they’ve overstayed visas. With economic conditions improving in Mexico and the recession in the U.S., net migration from Mexico has now fallen to zero. But we now have millions of people who’ve lived and worked for decades in the U.S. They have deep ties to their communities, and their children have grown up as Americans. And yet many can’t get a driver’s license or get jobs that aren’t under the table. If your parents brought you to the country as a kid, in most states you can’t get in-state tuition, much less qualify for financial aid. The cliché from immigrant-rights folks is that the 12 million are living “in the shadows,” but it’s no exaggeration — to be undocumented is to live in constant fear of being deported or having a family member deported.
The comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate last year tried to address the failure of our immigration system to handle the economic realities of the 1990s by offering those who came to the country without papers a shot at legalization. But House Republicans, in part because they hate President Obama and because they don’t like immigrants all that much, either, have failed to act on the Senate bill. Instead, they’ve called for all 12 million people to be deported — including kids who’ve grown up as American as any citizen.
Quite simply, the president has nothing to lose with Republicans by taking action on immigration on his own. Short of passing comprehensive immigration reform, offering temporary relief to the 12 million is the best way to account for the system’s past failures, which is both the humane thing to do and allows us to focus our resources on dangerous criminals and drug activity. Law-and-order types love to point out that undocumented immigrants have broken the law by coming here, but Obama’s proposed executive action on immigration is a frank acknowledgment that our system is just as much at fault for the mess we’re in today.