With the election over, President Obama has no good reason to delay executive orders to mitigate the harsh application of current immigration laws. Every day that he delays means more families torn apart by deportation. He cannot change the immigration law itself — only Congress could do that, and they won’t. But the president can and must use his executive power to change the way that the current law is applied. That is now the only way to stop deportation of family members and longtime U.S. residents and to protect refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence and terror in Mexico and Central America.
Immigration reform has come before Congress repeatedly over the past decade. Each time, Republicans in Congress blocked all meaningful reform. With a new Republican majority coming to the House and Senate in January, immigration reform is dead for at least the next two years. The president promised executive action before the election. Then he delayed until after the election, which helped neither immigrants nor Democratic candidates. Now he promises executive action soon, but Republicans are ramping up the rhetoric against both the president’s executive power and immigrants.
Poll after poll shows widespread support for immigration reform, among Democrats and Republicans. Though popular support for immigration reform has increased over the years, right-wing opposition has stymied every effort at changing the law.
That leaves a seriously broken immigration system in place. Right now, spouses of U.S. citizens are being deported. Parents of U.S. citizen children are being deported. Migrants who have lived and worked and paid taxes in this country for decades are being deported. Migrants convicted of minor crimes, even years after paying fines or serving sentences, are being deported.
Congressional inaction leaves only executive action as a tool to ameliorate the damage done by a broken immigration system. While the president cannot change the law, he can order deferred action on deportation for specific groups of people. That’s what he did back in 2012, with the popular DACA program: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The DREAM Act, which had broad bipartisan support, would have given these young people legal status. Since right-wing opposition blocked the DREAM Act, the president acted to protect the young DREAMers.
Now these young people are enrolling in colleges, getting jobs and serving in the military. Their parents, however, are still being deported. The parents and siblings and spouses of DREAMers need protection. President Obama can act now, by issuing an executive order extending deferred action to them.
Other groups who need this protection include spouses and siblings of U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens like Madina Salaty and Maria Perez tell heart-wrenching stories of the devastation of their families because of deportation of their spouses. Salaty’s husband came to the U.S. in 1994 on a student visa and lived here for 20 years — more than half his life. He was deported back to Bangladesh in May, subject to a ten-year ban on re-entering the United States. Perez said in the Washington Post that her husband’s 2013 deportation left behind “three broken hearts,” with her four- and thirteen-year-old children suffering along with her.
Long-time U.S. residents also need the protection through executive action. Hundreds of thousands have been deported for non-violent crimes since a 1997 change in immigration law mandated removal of any immigrant convicted of a crime punishable by at least a one-year sentence. This means immigrants with legal permanent resident status as well as migrants without valid visas. An executive order protecting immigrants who have lived in this country for at least three years could stop the deportation of people for crimes such as drunk driving.
Refugees and asylum seekers also need protection. Limits on refugee admissions mean that many people who flee to the United States have no hope of getting a visa. The United States currently admits a maximum of 70,000 refugees each year. Less affluent countries, such as Turkey and Kenya, open their borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn neighbors. Even as Mexico searches for 43 students who disappeared in police custody, and even as dozens of bodies are discovered in mass graves, the United States refuses to recognize most Mexican refugees.
Obama promised executive action earlier this year, and then delayed because he didn’t want to anger Republicans before the election. The anti-immigrant extremists will by angry, no matter what he does.
Obama has promised action before the end of the year. Now the question is whether he will delay that action until after the budget is passed.
Delay gains nothing. No conciliatory words, no delays, no attempts at bipartisanship have moved Republicans to cooperate over the past six years. Delay on immigration continues to tear apart families, to deport mothers and fathers, to leave people living in fear. President Obama, the time for action is now.