President Barack Obama’s remarks about immigration during his State of the Union address — and the ovation they drew from most Democratic and many Republican legislators — are fueling high hopes that Congress will finally reach an agreement this year to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants.
That’s very nice, but Obama should have gone much farther. He should have announced a temporary suspension of massive deportations of law-abiding residents who may soon be legalized.
While Obama has long advocated for legalization of most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and Republicans have strongly opposed it, the Obama administration has deported record numbers of people.
About 2 million undocumented immigrants have been deported since Obama took office five years ago, more than during George W. Bush’s eight years in office.
During his State of the Union speech, Obama went out of his way not to criticize Republicans for having systematically opposed immigration reform. Most likely, he sensed that both parties are close to a deal, and he didn’t want to antagonize anti-immigration Republicans in the House, who remain the last stumbling block to immigration reform.
Stressing the positive, Obama told the nation that “immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades.” He added, “Let’s get immigration reform done this year.”
Pro-immigration advocates say it was smart politics by Obama.
“In the crazy world of Washington, D.C., the more he says about immigration reform, the more Republicans are likely to resist it. In fact, you could say that he wants immigration reform legislation so badly, that he downplayed it in the speech,” says Frank Sharry, head of the America’s Voice pro-immigrant advocacy group.
Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., who gave the Republican response to Obama’s address, also struck a positive note. She said, “We’re working on a step-by-step solution to immigration reform,” suggesting that a deal may be in the works.
Many Republicans say they are, indeed, rethinking their immigration stands. They lost the 2012 elections — as many of us predicted — in part because of their steadfast opposition to immigration reform and their thinly veiled hostility to undocumented workers, which offended many Hispanics. Now, Republicans badly need to change their image of being the “anti-everything party’’ in time for the November congressional elections.
Still, many pro-immigration groups think Obama should have announced a temporary halt to massive deportations. In his State of the Union address, Obama said he would take executive action on several issues — including climate change, the minimum wage and Iran — but did not include immigration among them.
A group of more than 30 Democratic legislators in recent days sent a letter to Obama asking that he use his executive powers to stop deporting all undocumented immigrants who may be eligible for legalization.
Obama administration officials told me Wednesday that Obama can’t circumvent Congress on deportations, because it’s beyond his authority. Demanding that he suspend deportations amounts to asking that he stop enforcing the law, they say. Furthermore, the president wants a lasting congressional solution that will outlast his administration, they say.
But Sharry, of America’s Voice, told me that it would be unfair to deport immigrants who are on the cusp of legalizing their status under pending legislation.
“Obama claims that he doesn’t have the authority to make significant changes to the deportation policy that is set by Congress, but he certainly has the authority to roll back the record deportations carried out by his own administration,” Sharry said.
My opinion: Obama is on the right side of the overall immigration debate, but I don’t buy his argument that he doesn’t have the legal powers to suspend or slow deportations.
Obama did precisely that in 2012, when he announced a program under which more than 455,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children — the so called “dreamers” — would get a two-year reprieve from deportation. Why not do the same now with adult undocumented immigrants?
In previous years, Obama may have pressed the deportations pedal in hopes that anti-immigration Republicans would help him pass a comprehensive immigration reform. But times have changed.
Republicans will vote for or against immigration reform mostly based on their political convenience, and their political convenience right now is recovering the little support they have left among Hispanics.
There are hundreds of thousands of hard-working immigrants who may be deported this year just months or weeks before Congress acts. It would be unfair to them, their families, and the country to deport them now.