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 Obama as the nation’s “deporter in chief.” Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner has chastised his colleagues for being too timid to take up immigration legislation, then returned to Washington and taken it all back, placing blame, as usual, on Obama.
Unless House Republicans have a last-minute conversion and produce credible legislation, it’s time for the president to act. Obama has already directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review options for easing deportations, and the president should think big. The demise of immigration reform would be a humanitarian failure and 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. About 600,000 have spouses who are either American citizens or legal residents. Most have been in the U.S. 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, where recent arrivals are often targeted. 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 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. He has discretion in the enforcement of immigration law, though it would incense the opposition and further polarize debate. Opponents would no doubt label such a move as “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,” Obama has said. He’s right.