Viewpoints

Ruben Navarrette: In a fog on immigration reform

NEW YORK – There is much confusion surrounding news reports that President Barack Obama might soon take executive action to fix some of what’s broken with our immigration system.

The more people discuss it, the less they seem to understand what they’re talking about. After 25 years of writing about immigration, I’ve learned that the closer you are to ground zero, the clearer your thinking is likely to be.

I live near San Diego, about 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. But I was invited to New York by CNN this week to talk about immigration and Obama’s plans to use his executive power to give temporary reprieves from deportation to perhaps as many as 4 million or 5 million illegal immigrants.

Not that this is likely to make much of a difference in the grand scheme since, in all likelihood, many of these people were never going to be deported anyway. The Obama administration has removed 2 million people in five years, and it has barely made a dent in the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States.

Why not? Because many of those deported often return to the lives they had here before federal agents snatched them. Many are sent to Mexico, where it’s a relatively short walk back to the United States.

On the left, some are eager to give Obama credit for doing what they perceive as the right thing. But some of them are overstating what he seems to be planning as an “executive order,” which would have the force of law. Yet it is more like a simple policy change that shuffles enforcement priorities.

On the right, the fog is even thicker. Conservatives in both government and the media are flippantly talking about how Obama is about to hand out “executive amnesty” and give “legal status” to millions of illegal immigrants.

Oh boy. Do these folks realize that “executive amnesty” is a contradiction in terms? There is no such thing. As head of the executive branch, the president can give pardons to individuals, but a mass “amnesty” for illegal immigrants is something that only Congress can authorize. Besides, no one – in either branch of government – has proposed this course of action for 30 years.

Last week, I heard a conservative radio host who is normally well informed say that Obama was about to take executive action to give illegal immigrants “a path to citizenship.”

Rubbish. This president can’t hand out citizenship. No president can.

Republicans are correct to argue that Obama can’t provide an amnesty, but they’re wrong to assume that he’s about to do so. The president is preparing to do a lot less than that, and the folks on the receiving end are about to feel shortchanged. Amnesties are permanent; policy changes can be reversed by future presidents.

According to reports, Obama is mulling over several options: eliminating Secure Communities, which ropes local cops into enforcing federal immigration law; expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program by eliminating restrictions on how old applicants can be and when they had to have come to the United States; restating that the enforcement priority should be to remove criminals; expanding visa programs for immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens; and, perhaps the most controversial idea on the table – giving deferred action to parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

Most of this seems perfectly reasonable and consistent with what previous presidents have done in terms of giving segments of the undocumented community a way to live in the United States without fear of deportation. Besides, Obama has insisted that whatever policy change he makes would become irrelevant if Congress finally got to work on an immigration reform bill that would offer a more permanent solution. It’s clear that, politics aside, the president who removed so many illegal immigrants has no appetite for giving those who are still here the legal right to remain.

By the way, it’s absolutely galling to see some congressional Republicans plead with Obama to stand down and not take any executive action that would interfere with their continuing work on immigration reform.

What “work” are they talking about? There shouldn’t be any confusion about this simple fact: Demagoguing an issue isn’t the same as finding a solution to it.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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