Looks like the White House is not wasting any time moving forward with executive action to ease deportations, or at least it’s floating a pretty big trial balloon to that effect. Here’s the breaking news from the New York Times:
WASHINGTON — President Obama will ignore angry protests from Republicans and announce as soon as next week a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration enforcement system that will protect up to five million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation and provide many of them with work permits, according to administration officials who have direct knowledge of the plan.
Asserting his authority as president to enforce the nation’s laws with discretion, Mr. Obama intends to order changes that will significantly refocus the activities of the government’s 12,000 immigration agents. One key piece of the order, officials said, will allow many parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents to obtain legal work documents and no longer worry about being discovered, separated from their families and sent away.
That part of Mr. Obama’s plan alone could affect as many as 3.3 million people who have been living in the United States illegally for at least five years, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration research organization in Washington. But the White House is also considering a stricter policy that would limit the benefits to people who have lived in the country for at least 10 years, or about 2.5 million people.
Extending protections to more undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, and to their parents, could affect an additional one million or more if they are included in the final plan that the president announces.
There are other changes mentioned in the story, but the big pieces of this new policy are allowing parents whose children are legal residents or citizens to stay, and extending that to the parents of those who came to the U.S. as young children but aren’t documented. What’s significant about that isn’t just that it covers millions of people, but where the focus is: keeping families together.
Obama could have gone farther and extended protection to people without children who had been here a certain length of time, but it’s no surprise that he would want to lead with changes to the immigration system that stand a strong chance of getting wide support among the public. Nobody likes to see families broken up, and if you’re looking for a sympathetic face of undocumented immigration, you can’t do much better than an American kid who is terrified that his parents will be deported.
Republicans will counter that what’s at issue here isn’t the people being helped, it’s the procedural question: that Obama has acted like a tyrant by moving without congressional approval, despite their many warnings to him. They will repeat what they’ve said many times, that Obama will “poison the well” if he acts alone. (This blog has extensively covered the legal and “political norms” questions involved here and here.)
It’s entirely possible that Republicans might successfully generate a backlash to this decision. We don’t know how the public will react to executive action.
On the other hand, it’s safe to say that most Americans who are firmly opposed to any immigration reform that doesn’t involve building fences are already in the Republicans’ corner. And as Rep. Luis Gutierrez said in a floor speech this morning, speaking of John Boehner: “It is a little late for the mayor of Chernobyl to worry about someone else poisoning the well.”
Obama will probably respond to the Republican arguments by saying that if they object to his decision, there’s a way for them to do something about it: pass a bill. After all, it isn’t like they were right on the verge of doing so, but are suddenly pulling back because they’re so insulted that he went ahead without them.
The political question will come down to this: Will we be talking more about procedure, or about people? To be sure, both are important and relevant. But the White House is hoping that news reports will be filled with pictures of smiling families talking about their newfound ability to pursue the American dream without fear, set against angry Republicans complaining about separation of powers issues.