At last. After some thirty years, the immigration reform train has pulled into the station. No, it is nowhere near perfect. Yes, it is only a presidential initiative that opponents have tagged as dubious. No, not everyone who deserves relief is covered. Yes, it will still face opposition in Congress. But at least some five million unlawful immigrants have something to cheer about.
I recently described how my attitude towards unlawful immigrants changed after meeting some of them face to face in Detroit:
The immigrants were from Eastern Europe. Most had been in America illegally for over a decade. All were hard at work supporting their families from their meager, mostly cash-based earnings. While some came to America on a visitor’s visa and then never left, most came illegally. Some bought false passports for thousands of dollars borrowed from relatives or friends on the promise the money would be repaid from America. Others came through Mexico, making a dangerous crossing over the Rio Grande at night. Still others came lying under fish stacked over them in the hulls of fishing boats, or in coffins exported to America by ship. Some faced mortal danger, such as suffocation under the fish or being thrown overboard at sea in a sealed coffin by a captain afraid of being arrested for smuggling …
In meeting with them I formed several impressions that changed my attitude towards them. First, there was no realistic legal way for them to come to America, even for temporary work. Second, I came to understand that they had taken desperate measures for the sake of the well being of their families in the face of hopeless alternatives. Third, after ten years of hard work in America, including paying taxes in most cases, they had built up the equities of their claim for some sort of relief from removal. Finally, there was something about sinning and casting stones that was bothering me. In short, meeting the people at the heart of the issue had caused my view of that issue to change.
Given the plight of immigrants like these, I welcome President Obama’s initiative. And I believe it will be sustained by the Supreme Court if challenged.
I agree that the most constructive and best way for congressional Republicans to counter the President’s move would be to pass an immigration reform bill. The problem, however, is the same one that has plagued the Republicans for years. They know what they oppose but they can’t agree on what they want. So the President was right to do what he did – even if this will generate a firestorm of opposition and criticism.
Obama’s executive action will address the needs of many immigrants, some of whom have been waiting for decades to get immigration relief.
In the most significant part of his initiative, the President will temporarily shield up to 5 million immigrants from being deported. He will defer the deportation of the parents of children who are either U.S. citizens or legal residents, provided those parents have been here for at least five years. He will also expand that protection to more “DREAMers,” that is to say, children who entered the country illegally with their parents at least five years ago. Those two groups also will be allowed to work in the United States legally, after passing a background check and paying a fee.
Other parts of his executive action include beefing up security, helping entrepreneurial immigrants, improving processing for H-1B visa holders, and other measures.
While welcoming Obama’s announcement, Michael Petrucelli, a former Deputy Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), expressed disappointment that it did not address backlogged immigrants, or the way that immigrants and their dependents are counted. In 1990, Congress set the annual limit for new immigrants at 675,000 per year. Under that system, which is still in effect today, both principal applicants and their family members have all been counted under this ceiling number. When the maximum number was hit, no more immigrants could be processed. The rest ended up in a backlog waiting for the next year’s allotment of visas.
A widely advocated immigration reform view among my peers was that the current approach to counting the annual limit on the number of immigrants was a matter of executive interpretation. Following that argument, President Obama could, by executive action, change the count against the cap to only include principal applicants and not their family members. By doing that, the number of allowable yearly immigrants could be substantially increased. The new openings thus created could be used to reduce the backlog of immigrants waiting for spots to open so they could enter the country.
Petrucelli held this reform view and told me he was disappointed that it wasn’t included in the President’s announcement. Petrucelli tempered his comments, however, by adding that he hopes these latest developments will open the door for future congressional bills that will seek to ameliorate the deficient aspects of the U.S. immigration program.
Meanwhile, some Republicans have gone on the offensive and condemned Obama for his unilateral move. They have vowed to block it, saying that Obama’s executive action is illegal and unconstitutional.
Whether Obama’s action is constitutionally mandated, or legislatively authorized, will be the subject of intense debate in the months ahead. Meanwhile, the President’s answer to his congressional critics is for them to pass a bill. If they pass a bill, Obama contends, he will withdraw his executive action.
There is still a bumpy road ahead for those seeking immigration reform, but I believe this Obama announcement has helped to pave the way to a more certain future.