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Letter to the president on his executive action

Mr. President, we largely agree with you on the immigration issue.  But we question the wisdom of taking executive action to implement your preferred policies, while snubbing Congress and the legislative process. We wish you hadn’t done it.

Immigration reform is always difficult and unavoidably controversial. There are so many variables. Crafting legislation that is fair to all, while also being economically sensible, is fraught with peril.  It requires a balancing act – not a one-sided presidential dictate.

{mosads}From H1B Visas for high-skilled workers to H2A “green cards” for those working in the agricultural sector to properly defining refugee status and fairly defining family reunification, the details of immigration policy require careful consideration. Add to those factors the need to “do right” by those who arrived in our country through the established citizenship process and the goal of discouraging future illegal immigration and you can easily see why major reform only occurs every twenty or thirty years.

We know from our own experience in the 1980s – the last time major reform was enacted – the frustration of waiting and waiting for the Congressional process to deliver legislation. Back then with one legislative chamber controlled by the opposing party, President Reagan not only wanted – but needed – strong bipartisan support for reform.  And, though it took time, he got it. That reform measure was introduced in 1981 and not passed into law until 1986. But having gone through the process, it then enjoyed broad bipartisan support with 38 Democrat and 30 Republican Senators voting “yes,” while roughly 60 percent of House Democrats and nearly 50 percent of House Republicans House voted in the affirmative.

That law had its imperfections – but it wisely addressed the three key elements of reform:  improved border enforcement (also including deportation for those who break our laws), sensible worker provisions, and some legal status (with a path to citizenship under certain circumstances). In 2013, we were encouraged by the Senate’s Gang of Eight (four Democrats and four Republicans) who advanced a significant reform measure that incorporated these three elements.  Were we still in Congress today, we would be working to pursue similar legislation in the House. And, despite the conclusion you seem to have reached, we believe there is notable bipartisan support in the House today for most of these policies.

In short, we strongly believe a comprehensive reform law was possible, if, like Reagan, you had invested in a legislative rather than a unilateral approach. 

Your insistence on “going it alone” on immigration strikes us as a “Heads I win – tails you lose” proposition.  We urge you to look at this approach from the perspective of the Congress – who, like you, were elected by the American people to do the people’s business. From their point of view, your strategy appears disingenuous. First, you will implement (without legislative authority) many of the changes you prefer – and then at some later date you suggest that you will undo those changes – but (and this is a big but) only if Congress delivers to you a bill entirely to your liking.  With all due respect, that does not set the stage for a meaningful compromise that might enlist broad bi-partisan congressional support. 

Major initiatives, like immigration reform, which affect millions of Americans and the economy as a whole, should never be enacted without bipartisan support.  It bears remembering that Medicare, Civil Rights, welfare reform, and the last immigration reform law (back in 1986) all enjoyed significant support from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.  That level of support helped to assure Americans that the policy was both balanced and politically sustainable.

The party-line enactment of your Affordable Care Act, and its ongoing unpopularity, should serve as a cautionary lesson about the pitfalls of pursuing far-reaching goals with no bipartisan support.

An executive action  at this time only inflames rather than informs the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. It may be true – as you assert – that the recent election was not an endorsement of a Republican agenda. But it is also undeniable that in many ways the voters were expressing dissatisfaction with your leadership and your agenda.  Most all agree that an underlying message from voters earlier this month was a desire for Washington’s leaders to work together to get things done. Ignoring the message of the electorate by imposing this executive action is clearly unwise.

Obviously, presidents throughout history have used executive actions for a variety of purposes.  And, we acknowledge that your use of actions is less frequent than many of your predecessors.  Our concern, however, is with the magnitude of change that you are attempting through this action. You are essentially rewriting immigration law – and that sets this proposed action apart from other executive actions.

Again, Mr. President, we largely support the thrust of the reforms you seek.  We especially agree that reform is long overdue – as over 11 million undocumented workers continue to live essentially “outside the law.” But, Mr. President, you, sadly, show disrespect for the American people by insulting the newly elected Republican Congress.  This was the wrong time for an executive action as it sends the wrong message.

Mr. President you waited six years for legislative action on this important issue. Why could you not wait for six more months to allow time for this policy to be changed by legislation instead of executive fiat?

Penny served in the House from 1983 to 1995. He is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Kolbe served in the House from 1985 to 2003. He is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a consultant at Kissinger McLarty Associates.

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