WASHINGTON — Millions of undocumented immigrants found cause for relief after President Barack Obama gave a sweeping executive order protecting many families from break-up through deportation.
But the president’s unilateral decision, and questions about its legality, has both dramatically intensified the U.S.’s polarization on immigration and could scuttle the chance to reform the system.
Thursday night, President Obama delivered a prime-time address announcing that he was taking executive action that could shield perhaps as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation, and allow them to work in the U.S. legally.
“If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes — you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation,” he said. “You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”
The president summed up where the administration was prioritizing deportation: “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”
“If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”
The president outlined the concerns of several stakeholders in the immigration debate. He mentioned that legal immigrant families who “play by the rules watch others flout the rules,” and noted that business owners struggling to give their workers a good living “see the competition exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them far less.” At the same time, he said, “undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities [of living in America] see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart.”
Overall, the President tried to strike a balanced tone in explaining that his executive order was trying to chart a “middle-ground” between “mass amnesty [which] would be unfair” and “mass deportation” of 11 million people, which “would be both impossible and contrary to our character.”
In an appeal to the U.S.’s Judeo-Christian roots, the president referenced the book of Exodus near the conclusion of his remarks. “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”
“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” he said. “Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?”
“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?”
Bishops Appeal for Progress
The U.S. Catholic bishops, while welcoming the temporary relief for some families, have urged Congress and the President to work together.
“The President’s actions today are no substitute for the comprehensive immigration reform our nation needs,” said Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles in a Nov. 20 statement.
“I welcome this action, because it will provide some relief for millions of people who are in great need,” he said. “But the relief is not permanent and the problems are still not fixed.”
Archbishop Gomez added, “Too many families are being torn apart by deportations, uncertainty about their status, and delays in our visa process that can take years even decades. Too many men and women who are immigrants are being exploited in the workplace and forced to live in society’s shadows.”
“As a nation, all of us — not only our leaders — have a responsibility. We cannot turn our heads and continue to look the other way while our brothers and sisters need our help.”
In a statement after Obama announced his executive order, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Migration, said the Church’s agencies too often witness “the human consequences of the separation of families, when parents are deported from their children or spouses from each other.”
He said that the bishops have long been on record “asking the Administration to do everything within its legitimate authority to bring relief and justice to our immigrant brothers and sisters.”
Bishop Elizondo said the bishops were committed to working with both parties to enact legislation that both welcomes immigrants and “promotes a just and fair immigration policy.”
While 57% of Americans support the idea of immigration reform with a 12-year “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, according to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal Poll, most did not favor the president taking unilateral action. Only 38% supported the president’s decision, while 48% were opposed. Even among Latinos, only 43% approved of the president, while 37% were opposed.
The president’s executive action, however, comes six years after he promised to deliver immigration reform in 2009, the first year he was elected — a plan that would have passed easily in Congress, where the Democratic Party then had solid majorities in both houses.
Instead, the president blamed House Republicans for inaction on reforming the system, saying he took action 500 days after they would not permit a yes or no vote on the comprehensive immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate.
“To those Members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.”
But the move provoked a furious outcry from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where the Republicans will soon hold control of both the Senate and House, and other parts of U.S. society, demanding to know how the president can take action without a legal mandate from Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, whose own push for immigration reform involved a step-by-step legislative approach, told reporters the president’s unilateral action was both “damaging to the presidency” and killed any hope of immigration reform.
“With this action, the president has chosen to deliberately sabotage any chance of enacting bipartisan reforms that he claims to seek,” Boehner said.
Republicans have been rumbling about using Congress’s power of the purse to defund the move, while some have raised the prospect of a government shutdown, or impeachment — although the latter option seems unlikely.
Scott Jones, a sheriff for Sacramento County, Calif., said in a Thursday video message said that the president “is deferring this crisis” when the country, particularly law enforcement, needs a permanent solution, whether it be “a pathway to citizenship, guest work program, or any of the other innovative programs that currently exist.”
Said Jones, “[This] is not reform, it’s simply giving up. It does nothing to make America or the undocumented population any safer,” he said, pointing out that the undocumented nature of immigrants makes it so law enforcement “can’t tell which ones are good and which ones are evil.”
The Obama administration has countered that it is using prosecutorial discretion, and that earlier presidents have taken executive action to not deport certain groups of undocumented immigrants. However, President Obama’s executive order is not attached to any recent legislation, and critics of the decision have pointed out that the president seemed to rule out his ability to do anything unilaterally in 2010, when asked by immigration advocates, or in 2013, when asked again, he responded “I’m not the emperor of the United States.”
“I can’t recall such a massive alteration of the classical understanding of what laws mean in America being wiped out,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in a Friday address at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Sessions said they need an “objective” and “fair” immigration overhaul that serves the interests of the American people.
“This unilateral determination by the president to execute his vision that the American people clearly rejected this past election, I think is the wrong way to do it,” he said.
Caught in the Middle
Another major issue with the president’s executive order is that it lasts only as long as President Obama’s presidency. This means that the 2016 presidential election now has the status of 5 million people hanging on it, because the executive order could be reversed as soon as a new president takes office in 2017.
However, although the solution is not permanent, for some undocumented immigrants, there is a brief reprieve from all the uncertainty.
Adriana Guzman, a wife and mother of two girls, is one of the undocumented immigrants whose family will benefit from the president’s executive action. Guzman and her husband came in 2005 to the U.S., and are active parishioners at St. Peter’s Church in San Francisco. Their youngest girl, 8, was born in the U.S.
“I work in a restaurant, and my husband works in construction,” she said. “That is how we survive.”
Guzman said she was hoping most people would get legal status.
“I know what it is like to be always thinking about whether you could be end up in a detention center,” she said.
Not having legal status makes undocumented immigrants vulnerable to exploitation when employers find out, Guzman said.
“They pay less and give us extra work,” she said. “We don’t have another option: we need to get and keep the job. But I feel hope that I can get a better job, and help my little ones to have a better life.”
Guzman said she was glad the president’s order will allow her family to stay, but was afraid that her oldest daughter, born in Mexico, would not be covered by the president’s order, dashing her dreams of going to college.
“We came here with the hope for a better life, and we have worked hard so that our daughters can go to college,” she said.
Guzman said she has worked since 13, but Mexico did not have the same opportunities to improve their life and go to school.
“After I was married I thought, ‘I need a safe place for my daughter.’”
Since Guzman’s family left Mexico, her native country has been convulsed with a violent drug war. Deportation there means being placed in a country where between 60,000 to 130,000 persons are estimated to have been killed by drug cartels, death squads, paramilitary groups, and state forces since 2006. Just last week, several gang members confessed they worked with police to abduct, massacre, and incinerate more than 40 students in September, an act that has provoked an international outcry, leading to the arrests of 74 people, including a local mayor, his wife, and 36 officers.
“As a human being you have to keep your dignity,” Guzman said. “It is not that I am special, but I am a human being and there were circumstances in my country that made me move here."
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.
Senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond also contributed to this report.