If House GOP can't do better, Obama must act on immigration

This month marked the one-year anniversary of President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects DREAMers -- undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children -- from deportation and provides work authorization to pay taxes.

DACA came at a crucial time in the 2012 election, and devised at a time when the immigration debate had become irrational enough that it seemed nothing could be done in Congress. Mitt Romney was campaigning for “Self-Deportation” at the time. And yet, DREAMers were pressing ahead, confronting Republicans and Democrats on immigration.

But in late summer, there was a spark. Prior to the announcement of DACA, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had been privately working on his own immigration bill that granted temporary status far short of citizenship for DREAMers. This opened an opportunity for Obama.

ADVERTISEMENT
Finally heeding the call from DREAMers and advocates, the president announced DACA from the Rose Garden.  This derailed Sen. Rubio’s momentum, forcing him to withdraw his proposal.  As the 2012 election results vividly indicate, granting a reprieve for DREAMers was received with full support and virtually zero backlash.

Turning to 2013, the House can still produce a bill that does not throw money at a problem, addresses enforcement in an intelligent and humane manner, allows 11 million undocumented people to step out of the shadows, and adds billions in taxes to our economy.  So far, a strong group of prominent and rank-and-file GOP house members are voicing their support for citizenship and action on immigration.

Additionally, the bi-partisan “gang of 7” led by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) have signaled they would soon be releasing their long-awaited comprehensive bill they say has support from both sides of the isle. This should give House leadership incentive to act and suppress the fringe voices of their party.

Unfortunately, the GOP have shown they are not amenable to reform. Even a passing glance at Steve “Cantaloupe Calves” King (R-Iowa) is enough to see that GOP leadership cannot control the fringes of their party. King has been able to hold onto his position on the House Judiciary Committee, giving him an opportunity to undermine any immigration legislation. 

On policy, House Republicans continue to embrace unworkable proposals like the SAFE Act, which gives local police, untrained in immigration law, more power to arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally. The bill would generate inconsistent laws promulgated by localities, including those with a history of discriminatory practices. One does not need to look far to see the discriminatory effect: in March, a federal court found that immigration hawk Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio has systematically employed racial profiling against Latinos.

If the House GOP can’t do better on immigration legislation, however, President Obama must expand DACA and halt deportations for parents and workers with no serious criminal record.

DACA-plus would reinforce the federal executive’s power over immigration and prosecutorial discretion; a power that has been upheld most recently by the Supreme Court in U.S v. Arizona. Most importantly, it would not obligate the president to throw billions of dollars of unnecessary border patrol, immigration detention centers, predator drones or other expensive security contracts to quiet an unappeasable Republican primary crowd that is still holding the GOP hostage. The American taxpayer will be grateful.

With Congress’ approval rating at historic lows, one can point to the dysfunction in Congress as undermining both the effectiveness of and confidence in the government, leaving the president no alternative.  Most Americans would agree, especially Latino voters.

Indeed, nearly two-thirds of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented, likely part of the reason the Latino population so strongly supports comprehensive immigration reform. Latino voters, the fastest growing demographic, would know the president took leadership when Congress did not, and allowed their friends and family members not to be deported. Further, DACA plus would ameliorate the president’s harsh deportation record.

The opportunity presented to the president has not gone unnoticed: “If nothing happens in Congress, [Obama] will be tempted to issue an executive order like he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen,” Rubio said.  “We won’t get any E-Verify.  We won’t get any border security.  But he’ll legalize them.” 

Obama has correctly announced that we need Congress to bring a permanent fix to our outdated immigration system. Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, understand this legislative responsibility. But a majority of Republicans do not. Fortunately, our Constitution has cleverly created powers to address stalemate in Washington. Executive action on immigration is one of those powers that not only brings necessary relief, but also forces House Republicans to the negotiating table.

In the end, the constitutional and political tug of war is one that will be won by the branch that acts, not the one that makes excuses. Citizenship and equality will always be something we will be fighting for, but in the absence of an immediate legislative fix, DREAMers will push the president for an overhaul of deportations to keep families together.

Vargas, J.D., is director of DREAM Action Coalition and national activist for the DREAM Act.