On June 30, President Obama ordered Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to recommend actions he could take “within my existing legal authorities” to fix immigration: “I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay.”
No mincing words there. But over the weekend Mr. Obama said, in effect, “Never mind.” The bold deadline he proclaimed — “end of summer” — was set aside so the president could have time to explain his plans to the American people. Politics, he solemnly declared, had nothing to do with it.
That strains credulity. With control of the Senate in the balance, the pleas of Democrats in hotly contested races to postpone unilateral action on immigration until after the November election probably played a big role in the president’s decision. Political calculation apparently trumped Mr. Obama’s earlier boldness.
His caution may be understandable, up to a point. Losing the Senate to Republicans would further cripple his ability to govern. But he should never have set a deadline unless he was prepared to follow through. Mr. Obama’s paralyzing second thoughts following bold pronouncements is becoming a habit that disappoints supporters and lends credence to critics who call him weak. In this case, it once again disheartens Latino voters.
They have reason to be discouraged. Credited with providing a critical edge for the winner of the last two presidential elections, they have time and again been disappointed by the president’s failure to deliver on promises of immigration reform.
Mr. Obama did approve a program known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2012. It has allowed some 550,000 young immigrants to avoid deportation. But a few months ago, chasing the pipe dream of getting Republican buy-in on immigration reform, the White House asked the Pentagon to postpone implementing a new policy that allowed some young immigrants who came to the United States illegally to enlist in the military. The administration also delayed releasing the results of a review of its deportation policies that Mr. Obama had asked Secretary Johnson to prepare.
The justification both times was to avoid inflaming opponents of reform, but that excuse is wearing thin. There is no way Mr. Obama can appease the deportation caucus. He deported some 2 million people in his first five years in office, and still his Republican critics absurdly claim they won’t support reform because they don’t believe he’d enforce the law. Meanwhile, the failure to act results in real damage. Tens of thousands of additional deportations will occur, producing divided families, children placed in foster homes or institutions, lives disrupted.
Mr. Obama said the executive actions he would contemplate must fall “within my existing legal authorities.” Critics deliberately choose to ignore his words and claim he plans to go beyond what the law allows. But there is plenty Mr. Obama can do to ease the immigration crisis.
Presidents have wide latitude in this area. That includes giving relief to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, exercising more discretion in deciding who gets a waiver for deportations — and halting all or most deportations of non-criminals for the time being, the boldest step of all. Sooner or later, Mr. Obama must act. Advocates of reform who have relied on his promises have been disappointed one time too many.