Published: June 3, 2011
President Obama, who has spent two and a half years not delivering on his promise to fix immigration, gave a speech in El Paso last month and cloaked his failure in tough statistics — this many new border agents, that much fencing, these thousands of deportations.
As for the other parts of reform — where millions of immigrants get right with the law and get on with becoming Americans, where workers are better protected — he threw up his hands. He said immigration advocates “wish I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that’s not how a democracy works.”
O.K., so maybe it isn’t. But there is a lot President Obama can and should do, using the discretion and authority granted to the executive branch and its agencies to make the system work better:
Mr. Obama can bolster public safety by pulling the plug on Secure Communities, a program that sends fingerprints of everyone booked by state or local police to Department of Homeland Security databases to be checked for immigration violations. It was supposed to focus on dangerous felons, but the heavy majority of those it catches are noncriminals or minor offenders — more than 30 percent have no convictions for anything.
The president should listen to the many law enforcement professionals and local officials, like the governors of New York and Illinois, who want nothing to do with Secure Communities. They say it endangers the public by catching the wrong people and stifling community cooperation with law enforcement.
The president can push much harder against the noxious anti-immigrant laws proliferating in the national free-for-all. The administration sued to stop Arizona’s radical scheme. But Utah, Alabama, Indiana and Georgia are trying to do the same thing.
He can grant relief from deportation to young people who would have qualified for the Dream Act, a filibustered bill that grants legal status to the innocent undocumented who enter college or the military. He can do the same for workers who would qualify for the Power Act, a stalled bill that seeks to prevent employers from using the threat of deportation and immigration raids to retaliate against employees who press for their rights on the job.
He can resist Republican lawmakers who want mandatory nationwide use of E-Verify, a flawed hiring database, which would likely lead to thousands of Americans losing their job because of data errors. A December report by the Government Accountability Office warned that E-Verify is plagued by inaccurate records and vulnerable to identity theft and employer fraud.
He can order the citizenship agency to keep families intact by making it easier for illegal immigrants who are immediate relatives of American citizens to fix their status without having to leave the country. Many already qualify for green cards but are afraid to risk getting stuck abroad under too-strict laws that could bar their re-entry.
He can bolster the civil rights division of the Department of Justice and give the Department of Labor more tools to strengthen protections for all workers and the authority to combat labor trafficking. Such authority now lies with Homeland Security, which means many immigrants are too frightened to speak up when their rights are abused.
As President Obama said in El Paso, the United States needs to address “the real human toll of a broken immigration system.” There’s work to do, Mr. President.