Face-Off Over Immigration

Posted November 7, 2014

Highly recommended read.  For a powerful description of the intense political battle being waged in Washington, DC over immigration reform, see the Nov. 7 front-page Wall Street Journal article by Carol E. Lee and Peter Nicholas, Face-Off Over Immigration.  (Copyright 2014, WSJ – Nov. 7, 2014)

With this week’s significant Republican gains in Congress, which include shifts in chairmanships and rule-making power, the 2015 Congress may finally produce reform legislation that President Obama would not veto – likely piecemeal legislation, but nonetheless, progress might be made on updating wide provisions of an outdated U.S. immigration system that address lawful immigration.

Yet based on the tone and scope of disagreement by the principles related to illegal immigration (dramatically depicted in this article), concerning the need for legislation that looks back to address the millions already here, as well as forward, it becomes difficult to see how the legislative effort would succeed if, within the remaining lame duck Congress, President Obama acts unilaterally using so called executive action to grant provisional protected status to a wide pool of presently illegal immigrants, as he has promised to do.  (See Wikipedia explanation of Executive Orders here, including how past American presidents have wielded this unilateral authority without congressional backlash.)

This Wall Street Journal article reveals that President Obama has stated to Congress (through the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner) that he will undo any executive order if Congress later produces immigration reform legislation which addresses the issue of illegal immigrants.  Obama wants Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform (commonly referred to as CIR by advocacy groups) that addresses illegal immigration to the President’s satisfaction, including a pathway to citizenship for some, as opposed to piecemeal legislation which a majority of Congress now prefers, with border security efforts to precede any effort to provide relief to otherwise law-abiding members of the illegal community who have lived for years in the United States.

The difficult questions become, could such executive action, necessarily large in scope, be undone? How could Congress subsequently reverse the plight of millions of unlawful immigrants who are granted, in essence, temporary lawful status by President Obama?  How do you temporarily defer prosecution and allow roots to grow – think families, school, employment, the range of civic ties an immigrant, illegal or otherwise, develops over time – without thereafter creating even greater hardships when a new law demands those roots be uprooted?  Given these significant cross-purposes of policy and the nearly irreversible nature of Obama’s proposed unilateral action, why shouldn’t Republicans in Congress perceive the well of the democratic arena poisoned by an aggressive Executive short on time, and refuse to act in concert with the President on other pressing matters of governance facing the country?

Although gauntlet comes to mind, this dispute really centers on which branch of federal government owns the gavel when ultimate gridlock occurs.

Raise your hand if you feel susceptible to the political brinkmanship.  There are no easy answers.  Fortunately our founders envisioned such seemingly intractable problems of democracy and crafted a uniquely American solution that has worked for centuries.  (For an understanding of the Judicial branch’s ultimate power as arbiter of Executive-Legislative conflict, read about the seminal Supreme Court case which created the power of judicial review, Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).)  In present form, this ultimate gridlock between Executive and Legislative branches over immigration reform begs intervention from the Judiciary, the third branch of government.

Today’s illuminating WSJ article suggests both Executive and Legislative branches are willing to go there, to literally square off in court, with a Congress aggrieved by executive action as plaintiff.  Obama seems to be inviting judicial intervention with his typical air of breezy confidence, despite approval ratings among the American public well below 50%.  From what notion of national tradition does this confidence arise?  Where would such unprecedented executive action place Obama in history, if that is partly his impetus?  How should a Congress with majority opposition in both Houses and a poor track record itself of compromise (internally and with the White House) respond?

Most importantly, how can the grand tradition of the United States as a Land of Immigrants, upon which this great nation was founded, be sustained in this wildly partisan atmosphere?

American immigration reform has become the great political battle of the decade, if not the century.  Let’s hope the Supremes are not out golfing too.  Hopeful immigrants of all stripes: Stay tuned, stay informed, and stay out of trouble.