At long last, action

President Obama giving his immigration speech on Thursday.
President Obama giving his immigration speech on Thursday. AP

To judge from all the commotion aroused by President Obama’s executive order on immigration, it would seem that he had unilaterally declared a wholesale and unlawful rewriting of the nation’s immigration laws.

Except that he didn’t.

After years of saying that he preferred legislative action over executive action to reform the nation’s flawed immigration system, the president correctly decided that getting both the House and Senate to act was a pipe dream. If anything, his decision to proceed should give lawmakers an incentive to override his action by doing their jobs in the very way that the president recommended: “Pass a bill.”

At least one Republican figure on Capitol Hill with a background on immigration matters seemed to agree.

After Mr. Obama’s speech, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said he, too, was disappointed with the president’s action, but he suggested this would also put pressure on the president to sign a Republican-passed bill touching on reform, even if loaded with provisions Mr. Obama would not favor.

The sad reality, however, is that no such bill is likely to emerge from Congress anytime soon, and most Republican comments condemned Mr. Obama for acting on his own.

The president’s decision engenders mixed feelings. It’s too bad that it had to come to this — legislative action is always preferable to the singular exercise of executive power. On that, both President Obama and Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell agree.

But years of legislative stalling left little room for optimism that anything could be accomplished by working with Congress. Mr. Obama repeatedly tried, but ultimately failed, to persuade Republicans to work with him.

He also recognized the limits of his own authority, which cannot encompass all aspects of immigration.

That’s why his action is little more than a stopgap measure that doesn’t address many of the flaws in the system.

▪ Among other things, his action offers (limited) protection to fewer than half of all illegal immigrants in the United States. Millions more will remain subject to sudden, random deportation.

▪ Nor does it deal with important issues like overcrowded detention centers.

▪ It offers no hope to the parents of “Dreamers,” young people protected by an earlier executive order granting protection from deportation because they were brought here as children. Thus, in some measure, their families could still be torn apart.

▪ And it does absolutely nothing to solve the problem facing public hospitals like Jackson, who will still have to treat all immigrants — protected by this new action or not — even though they have no healthcare coverage and no way to pay.

However, it injects a measure of fairness and rationality in the field of enforcement:

There are 11 million illegal aliens in this country. And given that this country is not about to deport them all, choices have to be made about which ones should be priorities for the Border Patrol and other law-enforcement agencies. Mr. Obama’s executive order does exactly that by declaring that those undocumented residents who have children who are U.S. citizens should not be targeted, if they’ve lived here long enough and have no criminal records.

That’s the heart of Mr. Obama’s order, and it’s hard to argue with the logic behind it. It is the humane and practical course of action.

Legislative action would be the smart way, the better way, to get the job done, of course. But that seems to be asking too much.