President Obama’s use of his executive authority to defer deportation for millions of immigrant families has become a flashpoint for opponents of immigration reform. The state of Texas (with other states) has been allowed so far to sue the United States government to prevent the president’s plan from taking effect, despite the history of allowing presidents wide discretion in prioritizing the enforcement of immigration law. In turn, a federal district court judge has written a ruling that is more like a denunciation than a legal decision, and now two judges on a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit have refused to postpone the lower court decision pending appeals. The administration has decided to go straight to arguing the case on its merits before that same circuit.
In the wake of congressional failure to remedy our broken immigration system, the president did what he needed to do. He created two programs that would prioritize enforcement of immigration law, so that the government was not deporting law-abiding residents ahead of those convicted of crimes — and in the process, often tearing families apart. And, he expanded the terms of the 2012 executive action that deferred deportations for immigrants born after 1981 who came to the United States illegally as children before June 15, 2007, and had resided here for five years – the DREAMers. The expansion would allow individuals to apply for a three-year deferral if they entered before January 1, 2010, regardless of how old they are today. The program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, allows immigrants qualified under the law to obtain work permits, but not food stamps, federal welfare or disability benefits.
President Obama also created the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA. DAPA applies to those who are the parents of US citizens or lawful permanent residents and have lived here for five years or longer if they register, pass a background check, and pay taxes. They could apply for renewable work permits valid for three years.
The changes proposed by the president are an attempt to deal with an untenable situation – nearly 11 million US residents living in the shadows, for the most part unprotected by federal laws governing employment and providing social benefits. They pay taxes and contribute to the national and local economy – but they present a huge contradiction to the operation of a real democracy.
Perhaps most importantly, the president’s actions would prevent hardworking immigrants – some of whom have been in this country for decades – from being needlessly torn from their homes, jobs, communities, and families. The country as a whole, from our schools and neighborhoods to our economy and global standing, would benefit from such policy and leadership.
Yet in the case at hand, Texas v. U.S., the district court judge simply said that the president ought to have sought public comment before implementing his program according to the Administrative Procedure Act, an arguable point — not that his action was unconstitutional or violated separation of powers allotted to Congress and the executive branch.
So, why is Texas fighting Obama’s action? The state justifies itself based on alleged harm the policy will cause the state in the form of added social welfare and law enforcement expenditures in response to the effects of Obama’s policy. Apart from any assumptions the state might make, the benefits of immigration to Texas have been enormous, and they are not projected; they have already occurred. According to one study, one-fifth of the labor force in Texas is foreign-born and accounted for one-fifth of total economic output in the Houston metropolitan area, the nation’s fourth largest city. Further, a quarter of Texas business owners are immigrants and generate $10 billion in income for Texas each year. On the other end of the labor scale, noncitizen farmworkers were more than one-third of all farmworkers in Texas between 2007 and 2011, without whom the Texas agricultural sector would be in dire straits.
That is the backdrop for this case, and it makes pretty clear what is really going on here – an effort to tie up the president’s efforts at immigration reform until his presidency is over. Many of us supporting immigration reform are motivated by the Torah’s teaching: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
We must promote measures that provide a direct and inclusive path to citizenship without unjust enforcement triggers and reject the enforcement-only approach that separates families and persecutes those seeking opportunity and a better life. Our nation of immigrants continues to thrive and grow precisely because of a constant influx of cultures and ideas, not in spite of it. The assault on the president’s policy by those who would do nothing to fix our immigration mess is disingenuous and cruel.
Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women.