The immigration debate is a three-ring circus. So it’s no surprise the third branch is getting into the act.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments related to President Barack Obama’s executive actions concerning the selective enforcement of immigration laws. The justices will consider a request by the administration to lift lower court injunctions and answer the question of whether Obama is shirking his constitutional obligation to enforce the law.
After spending his first term racking up record numbers of deportations and insisting that he didn’t have the legal authority to hit “pause,” Obama discovered the benefit of taking executive action, especially during election years.
In 2012, the president boosted his re-election chances by creating a policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to give young undocumented immigrants a temporary stay of deportation and a two-year work permit. In 2014, the president tried in vain to help Democratic members of Congress win re-election by creating Deferred Action for Parents of Americans to extend the temporary reprieve to another sympathetic group – the undocumented parents of U.S.-born children.
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Now the chief executive wants the Supreme Court to grant him the power to stop his prolific deportations. He became the so-called “deporter in chief” not to win over Republicans but to assuage the concerns of those working-class voters who see their neighborhoods overrun by illegal immigrants and grumble about having to work harder to compete with them. You can almost see Obama pleading on the steps of the Supreme Court: “Stop me before I deport again!”
A coalition of 26 states – led by Texas – apparently doesn’t want him stopped. So the states filed a lawsuit, insisting that Obama is failing to enforce the law and that the executive branch can’t sidestep Congress in setting immigration policy.
Until the matter is settled by the justices, here are three things to keep in mind:
▪ Immigration policy is a partnership by the legislative and executive branches. The Constitution says that setting that policy is the job of the federal government, not the states. It means that only Congress gets to decide what the policy should be. The legislative branch makes the law, but the executive branch enforces it.
And, as anyone who has ever been pulled over by a police officer but given a warning instead of a ticket knows, part of law enforcement is discretion. The executive branch decides who gets deported, and with what priority those deportations occur. Members of Congress who want that power can file the paperwork, pay the fees, get on the ballots, and try their luck in Iowa and New Hampshire.
▪ Republicans are in a ticklish spot because, while they almost uniformly condemn this president’s use of executive power, they have thirsted for and sought to expand such power when they held the presidency. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
Exhibit A is the George W. Bush administration, which – after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – decided that the best way to prevent further attacks was to expand executive power. Ironically, two conservatives who sat on the federal bench and backed the Bush administration to the hilt in this power grab now sit on the same high court that will decide whether to extend the Obama administration the same courtesy: Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.
▪ Because we live in a complicated world where nativism lurks in both parties, the deportation debate cannot be comfortable for Hillary Clinton. The Democratic front-runner promises Hispanics that she'll be even more lenient than Obama. This is the game. Clinton knows that the more she promises, the greater the chances that Republicans will implode, and nothing will get done.
She'll take credit from Hispanics for “trying” to do the right thing without having to take flak from non-Hispanics for actually doing what they consider the wrong thing. For now, we won’t hear her bring up immigration much to white voters in Iowa, or African-Americans in South Carolina. We'll hear about it in Nevada, where Hispanics make up a sizable percentage of the electorate.
This is what the immigration debate is all about: policy, power, politics, and pandering.
And do you know what it’s not about? Immigrants.
Contact Ruben Navarrette at firstname.lastname@example.org.