California Forum

Meaningful reform would bring millions out of the shadows

Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones
Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones

There are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Twenty-two percent call California home, with a large undocumented population in our own community. The overwhelming majority are hardworking and law-abiding, and want nothing more than to raise families and realize the American dream that many of us who were born here often take for granted. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for this entire class of people.

Earlier this week, I was compelled to create and send a video message to President Barack Obama, imploring him to make meaningful immigration reform a priority. It has since gone viral because its message of frustration and call to action resonate with people all over this country.

On Thursday, the president unveiled his plan to defer action for several million undocumented immigrants. Of course, he cannot confer any rights to this group, nor can he offer them any promise of sustained deferment. He can only make the policy decision not to have them legally removed for a period of time. This is not reform. Putting aside the question of why any undocumented person or family would voluntarily “register” for such a program, the president’s executive action does nothing to advance meaningful, sustainable immigration reform, and in very real ways damages the chances that it can now occur.

Make no mistake, Congress shares much of the blame for the current state of our crisis – both Democrats and certainly Republicans. Their inaction, gridlock and political posturing are shameful. But Congress is a body, not a person; it is difficult to hold anyone singularly responsible, which is evidenced by Congress’ low approval rating but the high rate at which its members get re-elected.

The president, on the other hand, is singularly responsible for the power he possesses to impress on Congress the urgency of meaningful reform, perhaps doing nothing else until a reform bill is presented. While Congress can certainly stymie the president’s efforts on this or other matters, the president can also forestall much of Congress’ efforts, and should do so at every opportunity until a viable bill is presented.

The president can also individually change the enforcement policies of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and other federal agencies to ensure that every person who enters the U.S. illegally has some consequence and is not simply taken back across the border to return another day and suffer the same inconsequential fate. The president can also advance the cause of securing the border – a component of any successful, long-term immigration reform.

Unfortunately, our president has done none of that, making his stated urgency for reform questionable. So too does his intentionally waiting until after the midterm elections and failing to advance meaningful reform when he did have control of both houses of Congress. Incidentally, his failure is not a criticism of a Democratic president; I would have the same criticism of his Republican predecessors similarly punting on this issue.

Meaningful reform must address all 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, not simply declare that a sub-group has some greater status, value or legitimacy to our country. An ultimate solution could consist of a pathway to citizenship, a guest worker program or perhaps any number of visa programs that exist or could be created for all 12 million.

A program should recognize every undocumented immigrant as a human being, which acknowledges and appreciates all of those who contribute to our economy, our industries and our way of life. It should also identify and hold accountable the segment of undocumented immigrants who have chosen crime as a way of life. What the American people have been given instead is a program that allows the president to check the immigration box and simply defer any further responsibility on the issue, allowing Congress to blame the president and challenge his actions, so they too can do nothing.

I have said this before and will continue to say it. We need meaningful, sustainable reform, and we need it right now. I am – like most Americans – weary from waiting and hoping that Washington does what we expect our elected representatives to do. The president needs to make true reform a priority and change the hands-off policies that exist in the federal agencies within his control. He should start immediately securing our border as a requisite to any meaningful reform discussions or plan. Only then will we have the reform that still eludes us and be able to take 12 million men, women and children out of the shadows.

Scott Jones is the sheriff of Sacramento County.