That President Obama is full of election-year surprises. First he is suddenly for gay marriage. Now he is against deporting illegal immigrants who would have benefited from the DREAM Act, a targeted amnesty that Congress has thrice pointedly failed to pass.
Last week Obama’s Department of Homeland Security announced “effective immediately, certain young people who were brought to the United States as young children, do not present a risk to national security or public safety, and meet several key criteria” would be granted “administrative relief” from deportation hearings. They would be eligible to renew their legal status after two years and to apply for work permits.
“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano generously allowed. “But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case.” True. But neither should prosecutorial discretion be extended to up to 1 million people in an effort to effect policy changes that lack congressional support.
Critics point out that this decision contradicts Obama’s previous denials that he would circumvent Congress on immigration, making it another marriage-like flip-flop. At a Univision townhall meeting, Obama reminded his audience that there are three branches of the federal government, concluding, “There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president.”
Obama similarly disappointed a restive crowd at the National Council of La Raza when he said “some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own” but “that’s not how our system works.” His listeners replied by shouting, “Yes you can!” He continued with this theme when speaking to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“As I mentioned when I was at La Raza a few weeks back, I wish I had a magic wand and could make this all happen on my own,” Obama told the group. “There are times where — until Nancy Pelosi is speaker again — I’d like to work my way around Congress.” Now the president has found his magic wand in time to wave it on the campaign trail.
Yet the only thing that has really changed is that the administration is openly touting its position to the public. In fact, Secretary Napolitano confirmed to leading Senate Democrats that they were implementing DREAM by executive fiat in a letter last August. “The President has said on numerous occasions that it makes no sense to expend our enforcement resources on low-priority cases,” she wrote.
Leaked memos confirm that administrative amnesty has been debated throughout the administration for years, with bureaucrats and political appointees carefully weighing the pros and cons. The author of one memo circulated within DHS fretted, “The Secretary would face criticism that she is abdicating her charge to enforce the immigration laws.” But the administration hands hoped Democrats would “be viewed as breaking through the Washington gridlock in an effort to solve tough problems,” since “providing Latino voters with something they can support will be a win-win for us all.”
Except that Obama’s announcement seems to have alienated even Republicans who are basically sympathetic to the DREAM Act. Sen. Marco Rubio, who has proposed his own version of the legislation, complained “this short term policy will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long term one.” Sen. Lindsey Graham—affectionately known as “Grahamnesty”—called Obama’s initiative “at best unwise and possibly illegal.”
Indeed, one of the amnesty memos foretold this problem: “Even many who have supported a legislated legalization program may question the legitimacy of trying to accomplish the same end via administrative action, particularly after five years in which the two parties have treated this as a matter to be decided by Congress.”
Few want to deport law-abiding young people who arrived in this country through no fault of their own and don’t even speak the language of their native land. But most DREAM-style amnesties are fraught with unintended consequences that incentivize further illegal immigration, a problem better resolved through legislative give-and-take than by presidential edict. There is also the matter of introducing new, mostly low-wage foreign workers into the labor force at a time when so many Americans are unemployed.
In a close election, such matter trifle in comparison with the president’s need to turn out the Hispanic vote. The conventional wisdom holds, albeit based on dubious assumptions, that such voters are disappointed by the repeated failure of “comprehensive immigration reform” and want Obama to do something.
Obama has now done something, putting the immigration ball squarely into Mitt Romney and the House Republicans’ court. Bill Clinton’s adviser Paul Begala once crowed of executive orders, “Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool.” We’ll soon see if the American people agree.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator and a contributing editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter.