Going it alone

President Obama made it official in a Rose Garden speech on Monday: Immigration reform is dead for now. With Congress having taken itself out of the game, the president said he’ll do what he can on his own.

That’s no one’s idea of a good solution for the immigration impasse. Conservatives furiously reject the notion of unilateral executive action to deal with a critical national issue, contending that the president is overstepping his constitutional limits.

Reform advocates, meanwhile, demand the president just toss aside all restraint and do more than is either wise or practical. Indeed, it didn’t take long for them to speak up. On Tuesday, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, called on the president to provide work permits to everyone who would have been eligible for citizenship under the Senate immigration bill.

In other words, he and other reform supporters would have the president, by executive fiat, provide work permits for all potential workers among the 11.5 million people already in the country illegally. The suggestion speaks to the pressure Mr. Obama is under from his own supporters, yet such an audacious act would generate a huge public backlash against immigration reform.

Still, no one should blame the president for his decision to go it alone. The House Republican majority has abdicated its role to legislate in the public interest by blocking a Senate version of immigration reform that passed with bipartisan support. They have failed to provide an alternative, even as they acknowledge that the immigration system is broken.

The president himself understands the limited utility of acting alone: “Even with aggressive steps on my part, administrative action alone will not adequately address the problem. The reforms that will do the most to strengthen our businesses, our workers and our entire economy will still require an act of Congress.”

Yet for all the downsides to acting without a congressional partner, the president was left with little choice. The president’s speech on Monday was prompted by a letter from House Majority Leader John Boehner informing the chief executive that his caucus intended to do nothing on immigration, which killed any hope of reform.

Legislatively, that means the Senate-passed bill is dead, for all practical purposes. Lawmakers will have to start all over with a new Congress next year.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis on the border grows larger by the day, with some 50,000 children having crossed the border since October being sheltered by the government in safe havens around the country, including Miami. That’s nearly 200 per day, and more over the horizon.

Putting aside immigration reform, Mr. Obama challenged lawmakers to help in the immediate crisis. He asked for an increase in immigration judges, tougher penalties for smugglers and efforts to dampen violence in Central America, where most of the children come from. Surely lawmakers can at least do that much.

It remains unclear what the president meant when he asked for “discretion” in dealing with the wave of child immigrants, but he should not weaken their legal protections in any way. That includes keeping them safe from summary deportations and allowing them to be recognized as potential refugees after a proper hearing.

These children are victims — of fear, of misery and, possibly, of human traffickers. Sending them home without due process would make the United States complicit in their misfortune.