Obama Could Legally Stop Immigrant Deportations

The White House is deporting more than 1,100 illegal immigrants per day. Why Obama can—and should—stop sending away would-be Americans.

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post, via Getty

Currently, President Obama and his Administration are deporting more than 1,100 aspiring Americans every single day. That’s 1,100 mothers and fathers and hardworking folks who come to the United States because our economy desperately needs them, our businesses aggressively recruit them, and yet our laws have not kept pace with that reality.

The White House argues that it does not have the legal authority to stop or reduce the number of deportations in America—that the only possible recourse is passing comprehensive immigration reform. But last week, advocates with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) filed a 41-page rulemaking petition with the Department of Homeland Security presenting compelling legal analysis of how the Administration can use its executive authority to dramatically reduce or halt deportations (full disclosure: I have consulted with and supported the activities of NDLON). Most notably, the White House has already used this authority, enacting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last fall to give temporary relief to young immigrants known as Dreamers. The White House could very clearly, and very legally, apply such deferred action to other undocumented immigrants.

Instead, Obama has done the direct opposite—deporting more immigrants at a higher rate than any of his predecessors. Among other measures, the President expanded Secure Communities, a program through which the fingerprints of everyone arrested by local police in cooperating jurisdictions are run through the federal DHS database to check for immigration violations. Despite the fact that communities, police and governors have protested Secure Communities, evidence exists that the Obama Administration has recently expanded the program even further, through expanded funding and racialized “stop and frisk” tactics. As a result, sometime in the next few weeks, President Obama will hit the inauspicious mark of having deported two million people during his presidency. That’s ostensibly the same number of people who were deported between 1892 and 1997—in total.

This from the man who supposedly wants to make helping undocumented immigrants one of the signature achievements of his presidency.

Of course, there’s no question that comprehensive immigration reform—including a road to citizenship —would make the most permanent and profound difference in the lives of our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. But once again, House Republicans are stalling the prospects of reform. Proving that the Republican Party faced with already-dismal public support and a growing Latino electorate knows no bounds in its extent of self-destructive behavior, Speaker John Boehner—under pressure from the far right of his caucus—has cast doubt on reform legislation just days after encouraging it. Boehner’s reason? That Republicans cannot trust President Obama to enforce such a law if Republicans pass it.

That’s right, Republicans are arguing that the President who has deported more undocumented immigrants than any of his predecessors—who has not only enforced our nation’s draconian immigration laws but doubled down to make that enforcement even more aggressive and widespread—cannot be trusted to do what he has very clearly already done. This latest twist says nothing about President Obama and everything about the childish threats and manipulations of a Republican Party determined to be as uncooperative as possible in the governance of our nation.

The White House, for its part, argues it’s reluctant to unilaterally halt or reduce deportations through its executive authority and risk angering Republicans. But the Republicans are already angry and accusing the President of lawlessness—and will continue to do so no matter what the President does. Republican attacks on President Obama have always had a strong imperviousness to facts. Meanwhile, instead of taking cues from Republicans who keep taunting the White House and all of us with threats and promises around immigration reform, perhaps it’s time for President Obama to make some threats of his own and say that he will use his very clear legal authority to unilaterally stop or drastically reduce all deportations unless House Republicans finally allow a vote on the immigration bill the Senate has already passed. It would be welcome relief from letting Republican hand-wringing ambivalence drive the immigration debate.

President Obama has the legal authority to stop deportations. And given his rhetoric about immigrants and immigration reform, arguably the President has the moral obligation to act. The question is whether he has the political guts to do it.