Action on immigration

As the end of summer approaches, the time nears for President Obama to fulfill expectations that he will take executive action to overhaul immigration. If he does act unilaterally, it would represent a 180-degree change in position for a president who on more than one occasion rejected pleas to fix immigration by executive action because the Constitution delegates the power to make law to Congress.

It doesn’t take a constitutional scholar to agree with that position. Indeed, we could fill this space with reminders about the separation of powers, the virtue of presidential restraint, the ideal of bipartisanship and the need for thoughtful debate that accompanies sound legislative practice.

All of that would suggest the president would be better off doing little or nothing on his own to fix immigration. But all of the foregoing, reassuring platitudes ignore the reality of today’s Washington. Either Mr. Obama acts on his own or the problems created by a broken immigration system continue to fester. That’s the reality.

Congress has virtually abdicated its responsibility to fix immigration — and a host of other serious problems — because it refuses to reach across the aisle on this or practically any other issue. The tea party demands rigid adherence to its own right-wing agenda, and Republicans are paralyzed by a fear of offending the most strident voices in the party, especially on the hot-button issue of immigration.

Before leaving town for the August recess, lawmakers once again blew a chance to fix immigration by passing a bill so extreme that it had no chance whatsoever of becoming law. It embarrassed Republican House Speaker John Boehner and drew a rebuke from the conservative Wall Street Journal as a product of the “deportation caucus” that was hurting both the nation and the party itself.

Mr. Obama promised to respond to Congress’ refusal to act, reportedly by the end of summer, leaving out the details. Now partisans on all sides are eagerly awaiting — or dreading — what action he will take. Pro-immigration advocates want him to issue sweeping orders of legalization, while critics demand that he stay out of it.

So let’s deal with the reality. Congress is not going to act — not this year, perhaps not until after the next presidential election. That’s a recipe for more confusion and more crises at the border. Mr. Obama has been left with no choice but to see what he can do on his own.

The best solution, though temporary, would be to bring millions of undocumented residents — who are not going to “self-deport” at any time — out of the shadows by suspending unconditional deportation and allowing them to apply for work authorizations. Let them register, work legally and pay their rightful share of taxes.

Most of them already work, but under conditions that make them vulnerable to exploitation, often paid in cash.

That helps to lower wages for the entire working class and unfairly divides families that have lived and worked here for many years. Mr. Obama’s action, properly done, would allow law enforcement to target actual felons among the immigrant population instead of those who are law-abiding and have roots in the community.

This would enrage some conservatives. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s not amnesty. It can be revoked, and it is temporary. The president has wide discretion to act on immigration, and Congress has given him every incentive to act on his own.

And if lawmakers have a better solution, they are free to pass a reasonable immigration reform measure that actually stands a chance of becoming law.