WASHINGTON – Oh, please. All the melodramatic Republican outrage isn’t fooling anybody. The only reason President Barack Obama has to act on immigration reform is that House Speaker John Boehner won’t.
I repeat: That’s the only reason. The issue could have been settled a year ago. It could be settled in an afternoon. The problem is that Boehner refuses to do his job, preferring instead to spend his time huffing and puffing in simulated indignation.
On June 27, 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill by a 68-32 vote. Boehner refuses to bring it to the House floor, even though he knows it likely would pass.
Make that because he knows it likely would pass. Most House Republicans vehemently oppose the Senate measure – though it’s hard to understand why – which means the votes to approve it would come from Democrats and the few remaining GOP moderates. By doing the right thing, Boehner would incur the wrath of his own caucus. That’s his problem, not Obama’s.
The president has not just the right but the obligation to “use all the lawful authority that I possess,” as he promised last week in a long-deferred effort to repair an immigration system that both parties agree is broken. Law and precedent give Obama wide latitude, and at this point he can hardly be accused of acting rashly.
Instead of debating what kind of hissy fit they want to pitch, Boehner and his flock ought to be reading the Senate bill. They would find much to like.
Republicans claim they first want to address border security before making any provision for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live and work in the shadows. This is precisely what the Senate bill does.
The number of Border Patrol agents would be nearly doubled and 700 miles of fencing built before qualifying undocumented adults could even obtain green cards – giving them permanent residence – let alone apply for citizenship. Even if the agents, the fence and other new security measures are in place sooner, green cards would not be awarded for at least 10 years after the bill becomes law.
Along the border with Mexico, there would be watch towers, camera systems, ground sensors and other high-tech gear. Drones are already patrolling the skies overhead, but the Senate bill calls for those, too. And again, all of this has to be in place – and working well – before eligible migrants would begin getting permanent permission to live and work here.
The legislation also includes a host of reforms long sought by the business community. More foreign graduate students at U.S. universities would be able to stay here after earning their degrees. Applicants for residence who have exceptional talents or qualifications in technical fields would be given preference. Farmworkers – whose labor is essential to U.S. agriculture – would have their own special status.
As far as House Republicans are concerned, all of this is far too reasonable. For one thing, the Senate bill departs from far-right orthodoxy by refusing to pretend that 11 million men, women and children could somehow be rounded up and deported. For another, Obama likes the bill – which means, in Boehner’s playpen, there must be something wrong with it.
Is the House being asked to approve amnesty for millions who broke the rules to come here? Of course. That’s one of the main purposes of the whole exercise.
Under the Senate bill, most adults here without papers would have to pay fines, wait a decade before they can get green cards and then wait an additional three years before they could possibly become citizens. But they could apply for “provisional” status immediately, which means they would no longer have to fear that at any moment they could be arrested, detained and shipped home.
It is better for all of us if these people – the vast majority of whom will be here anyway – are allowed to contribute to the economy openly. We all gain if they pay their full share of taxes, if they improve their skills through education, if they start businesses and create jobs. We squander their potential by consigning them to precarious, makeshift lives that can be undone by a random traffic stop.
We’ve done amnesty before under Ronald Reagan. This is not just an exercise in compassion. If House Republicans won’t consider the national interest, Obama has no choice but to act.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.