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A Question of Decency

Yesterday, speaking in El Paso, Texas, President Obama referred to a growing consensus around the idea that it’s time “to solve the immigration problem.” We agree, and wrote so, last week, in an editorial published in print on May 4. In his speech, President Obama expressed hope for political progress on issues such as the Dream Act. We concur that such progress would be wonderful—but it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. And so, we stand by what we wrote below: We implore Obama to take steps now that don’t require congressional approval, such as deferring deportation of illegal immigrants who would be covered by the Dream Actsteps that would help to make our approach to immigration more decent and humane.

Is there any debate in our country that is less humane than the one over immigration? Obviously, the reasons for illegal immigration are complicated. But there is no denying one cause of our current immigration conundrum: Our economy has encouraged substantial immigration, while our government has allowed too little of it. Conservatives have been blind to this reality. And so, when immigrants, mostly Latino, have come here to work illegally, Republican politicians have scapegoated them and demanded their removal.

This has been going on for years, so it’s never much of a surprise when conservatives take heartless stands on immigration—as they did several months ago, when congressional Republicans beat back the DREAM Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who came here as children.

But if the conduct of conservative politicians hasn’t exactly been a shock, here’s something that has been a surprise: the failure of a liberal president to provide any meaningful leadership on this issue. True, Obama supported the DREAM Act. But having seen it stymied in Congress, he has not taken steps to try to mitigate the madness of our current policies, despite the fact that such steps are very much available to him.

For years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which controls Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the border patrol, has prioritized the deportation of undocumented individuals who have committed crimes. This, obviously, is sensible. And Obama, to his credit, has increased the focus on criminal deportations: Last year, 50 percent of deported immigrants were criminals, compared with only 31 percent during the last year of the Bush administration. But this still means that a huge number of non-criminals are being deported—about 200,000 annually. It also leaves millions of undocumented immigrants legitimately afraid to go about their daily lives—afraid, for instance, that a traffic violation could lead to deportation.

In the absence of an ability to get common-sense measures like the DREAM Act through a stubborn Congress, the obvious thing for Obama to do would be to carry out reforms that don’t require congressional approval. Immigration agents could, for example, exercise more discretion in whom they deport. Last year, a leaked internal memo from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services proposed exactly that, outlining ways the agency could defer action against people whose deportation was “not in the public interest.” To be sure, some agents already do this, but such leniency has not been consistent. In April, the American Immigration Lawyers Association pointed to a number of cases—some involving victims of human trafficking and domestic violence—in which adequate prosecutorial discretion had not been applied. The month before, while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano had backed away from the idea of increased discretion, boasting that the administration had deferred the deportation of fewer than 900 immigrants—as if such a callous statistic were something to be proud of.

It would be simple enough for Obama’s DHS to publicly and clearly instruct its agents to weigh a number of questions when they encounter an undocumented immigrant: How long has the person been in the United States? Is the person enrolled in college? Did the person come here as a child? Does the person have compelling family ties in this country? A policy of this sort would formalize a more humane approach to immigration at DHS.

Along the same lines, Obama could order DHS to defer deportation of the hundreds of thousands of people who would have been eligible to stay here under the DREAM Act. These are undocumented immigrants who came here at a young age and have been here for at least five years. Twenty-two senators have recently called for Obama to do this. We emphatically agree.

It should go without saying that none of these measures would provide an overarching solution to our country’s immigration policies. Those policies need to be dramatically overhauled in order to provide a path to citizenship for those already here, as well as to offer more visas for those looking to immigrate. Someday, we hope, big-picture reform will be politically possible. But, in the meantime, there are small, concrete steps the government can take to ensure that the country’s eleven million illegal immigrants do not have to continue to live in a climate of fear. While no one should be encouraged to come here illegally, we need to treat those undocumented immigrants who are currently here—especially those who were brought to the United States as children by their parents—with a greater degree of decency. This is an issue that requires moral leadership. We are waiting for President Obama to show it.

This article originally ran in the May 26, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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