In opposing President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, critics on the right have it wrong.
The arguments made to the Supreme Court by conservatives who oppose the administration’s efforts to temporarily defer deportation and grant work permits to two groups of undocumented immigrants — young people brought to the United States as children by their parents, and the parents of U.S.-born children — were neither strong nor persuasive.
In a nutshell, Republicans like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott insist that Obama is making the law instead of executing it. As a former state attorney general, Abbott should know better. Prosecutorial discretion is a real thing, and law enforcement officials get to prioritize who to go after and in what order. Just because a policeman uses his discretion to give you a warning instead of a citation does not mean that he is unilaterally rewriting the vehicle code.
Besides, discretion is a double-edged sword. According to immigration attorneys I’ve heard from, the administration is currently moving Central American refugees — mostly women and children — to the front of the deportation line, placing them ahead of hardened criminals. Do conservatives have a problem with this, too? If so, they’re being awfully quiet about it.
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Opponents also worry that, if the White House allows illegal immigrants to remain on this side of the border, states like Texas — which is leading a coalition of more than 20 states in opposition to the administration — might have to provide the undocumented with driver’s licenses and other benefits. So, they insist, this is an unfunded mandate.
Talk about taking the long way home. No one forces a state like Texas to provide driver’s licenses, at least not without another court fight or putting the question on a state ballot. We still have states’ rights. Obama didn’t even issue executive orders, which would have the force of law. He merely took executive action, which amounts to implementing minor policy changes at the Department of Homeland Security that can be easily undone by any future president.
So what is this really about? I have a theory: Republican critics of Obama’s executive actions — better known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) — are actually afraid of having to pay a price at the ballot box for their tolerance of demagogues like Donald Trump. They think the best way to avoid being held accountable is to fight any attempt to let the immigrants remain in this country.
But just because conservatives are off-base in their arguments against Obama’s executive actions on immigration doesn’t mean those policies are a home run. More like a foul ball.
Although I was once a supporter, I’ve come to realize that these executive actions represent a major step backward for those of us who want a permanent fix to our broken immigration system. They’re crumbs that immigration reformers — out of hunger and desperation — like to imagine is a steak dinner.
Let’s remember that these executive actions were born of dishonesty, cynicism and expediency. Obama spent the first three years of his presidency repeatedly denying that he had the very kind of executive power that he eventually exercised. In fact, he often pushed back against immigration activists, telling them that he was “not a king” and so he had to work with Congress. In June 2012, he did an about-face and went it alone to rekindle Latino support for his re-election, which had been on the wane due to his broken promise to fix the immigration system and a record number of deportations. This suggests that Obama launched these changes not because he wanted to, but because he felt he had to. This often makes for bad policy.
And while the deferred action is temporary — two or three years with the possibility of renewal — what’s permanent is the jeopardy that applicants put themselves in to receive it. Immigration officials will have on file an individual’s name, fingerprints, and a home address where they can find the applicant and his or her family members, some of whom may also be undocumented and subject to deportation. This is a Band-Aid on a chest wound. And it’s not just deficient. It’s dangerous.
The 2016 presidential hopefuls are sometimes asked if they intend to preserve Obama’s executive action on immigration. That’s the wrong question. We should be asking the candidates how quickly they intend to end it and what they would replace it with.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.