“Do you think it will happen?”
After two decades of covering the immigrant community in the United States, that is the question I have heard most often. My standard answer has been “yes.” I point to demographic trends and recent election results, in which the Hispanic vote has become so powerful. It’s been my belief that, sooner rather than later, immigration reform would happen.
Now, I think the opposite is true.
After months of stalling, and with midterm elections looming, the latest window for immigration reform is closing fast. Even its most enthusiastic supporters admit that if Congress doesn't act before summer, odds will lengthen to the point of hopelessness.
As of now, House Republicans seem unwilling to take up any bill. In the last few months, they have cowered behind a cynical line of reasoning: they insist President Obama can't be trusted with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. It's a position born of ideological dogma, not statistical evidence. Add to that the unpredictable political consequences of legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants, and you have the recipe for further frustration and paralysis. All in all, the prognosis is not good for immigration reform.
That will put Obama in a tough spot. The deferred action program (DACA) set an odd precedent among the Hispanic community: the idea that the president can bypass Congress and unilaterally implement a de facto immigration reform.
This is false.
The president cannot halt deportations for good with the stroke of a pen. Neither can he enact any sort of comprehensive, permanent immigration reform. That is not how the law is written and, in the end, that is not how democracy (with all its discontents) works.
What the president can do, though, is put in place a series of executive decisions that would grant temporary relief to large groups of undocumented immigrants. He could, for example, “eliminate ‘non-criminal re-entrants and immigration fugitives’ as a priority category for deportation,” as ex-Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Sandweg suggested in a recent op-ed for The Los Angeles Times.
This would shift the agency’s enforcement efforts away from people who may have been deported, say, ten years ago, successfully made their way back into the country and built a family here, only to face the threat of deportation again. Instead, the agency would use those resources to “track down and arrest the increasing number of much more serious public safety threats the agency identifies,” wrote Sandweg.
The president could also focus ICE’s priorities more strictly on “Level One” offenders, defined as undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of felonies. Many organizations, including the ACLU, have advocated this path as a way to grant relief to undocumented immigrants who face deportation after a misdemeanor or other minor offense, like a traffic violation.
Of course, the president could also bet on more dramatic procedures. He could implement a measure similar to deferred action and grant temporary relief to those who could be considered candidates for legalization under the Senate-passed immigration bill.
Is any of this possible? Yes. Once the window of opportunity for comprehensive immigration reform closes (and it surely will, given Republican obstruction), Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will probably recommend some combination of the above. Immigration advocates would be wise to curb their expectations, though. It seems unlikely that President Obama would endorse something as far-reaching and politically dangerous as the “über-DACA” scenario. In all likelihood, the president will adopt measures that will refocus ICE´s priorities among other provisional fixes to a broken law.
Immigration advocates will react jubilantly.
Temporary relief should not be seen as any sort of triumph. By definition, executive actions are subject to change. They are neither comprehensive, nor definitive. They bring about the mirage of improvement, nothing more. The effectiveness of executive action is as fickle as power itself. And one only needs to glance at the Republican record in the House — and even at the Republican candidates’ position on immigration in 2012 — to realize how quickly everything could turn.
The truth is, if immigration reform is reduced to a series of executive measures for the remainder of the Obama administration, this should be remembered as one of the most galling failures of contemporary American democracy.
A poll was even conducted to prove that passing the law would not alienate GOP voters. Examples abound, all of them to no avail: immigration reform remains hostage of polarization. A mantelpiece for a house divided.
And that is shameful.