Once upon a time, there was a U.S. President who campaigned on reforming immigration laws, in an attempt to make them more compassionate and humane, as well as addressing the practical issues of dealing with the millions of undocumented folks already in the country. He proposed a guest worker program, increased border security, and a path to citizenship for many of the (otherwise) law-abiding undocumented immigrants living in the USA. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act passed the Senate but died in the House (both houses were controlled by his own party). The President tried again the following year, and that version of the bill failed to even get a vote. The President gave up on immigration reform, and worked on other issues he had the ability to fix. Of course, the POTUS of which I speak here was G.W. Bush. He couldn’t convince the GOP or the Democrats to implement his version of the DREAM Act. The opposition to his reform plans were many: rewarding people for getting here illegally, not generous enough to family members, the guest worker program was somehow both too lenient and too strict, etc.
President Obama then tried to implement similar legislation. A bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives co-sponsored the bill in 2009. It failed.
The House passed a DREAM Act in 2010. Five moderate Democrats in the Senate voted against cloture, so it failed.
It seems a lot of people have very short attention spans for politics, and don’t realize that the issue of people who were brought to this country illegally, before they could make the decision for themselves, has been one that has been grappled with for a long time. The very first version of the DREAM Act was introduced in 2001. For a long time, offering any sort of legalized status for these people was controversial even in the Democratic party – the big labor unions (AFL-CIO in particular) lobbied hard to prevent a guest-worker program and other methods of legitimizing “illegals,” for fear of undercutting the wage structures of unionized workers.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is an odd beast. President Obama only formalized it after his second attempt to get any traction on immigration reform met with a stony silence from the GOP-controlled Congress. And it’s never been tested by the courts to see if it’s actually legal. The President has pretty broad powers for prosecutorial discretion and prioritizing enforcement of federal laws. When many states began decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, the federal government had the option to keep prosecuting federal drug laws (which they did through the first several years of the Obama administration), or prioritize other laws to worry about. Throughout his administration, President Obama’s immigration priority was enforcing the employment side – he deported more people than every 20th Century President combined.
When he announced he was no longer going to target parents of US citizens or people who were brought to the USA as children, that was merely prioritizing immigration enforcement resources, and clearly legal to almost every scholar. When he created a program to provide some form of legitimacy, though – registering and allowing them to come out of the shade – that’s where some folks say he crossed a line. One constitutional scholar said, in 2011, “With respect to the notion that [one] can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed.” You just know who I’m going to reveal is the author of that line, right? Come on, you know. What’s the most ironic way to go – yep, that was Barack Obama. And he didn’t say that just once – he is on record repeating that phrase almost two dozen times over the years. A federal court struck down the DAPA program, which delayed deportation for those who had citizen minor children at home, so there’s a strong belief that DACA would go down if it ever did get challenged in court.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, in this as in so many things, it’s hard to put back in. Nearly 800,000 people have now put their names in federal government databases, with their workplaces and home addresses, and they will soon be hunted again. This is one of the arguments against using executive actions to circumvent or tweak (depending on how generous one is) legislative guidance – it can be undone very easily. These thousands of people, many of whom have no memory of living anywhere but in the USA, are now fair game to be sent to a foreign land with nothing but the clothes on their backs. That seems like an unreasonable thing to most people with any compassion at all. The US government promised not to screw them over if they came out of the shadows, and now they’re apt to get screwed in epic fashion.
Maybe, just maybe, this particular goat fuck will spur Congress to actually enact the legislation that many in their halls have been calling for since the turn of the millennium. But, I wouldn’t bet on it. It seems the previous seven years of “just say no” has become the only thing they know how to do now.