I don't live in Washington, but almost every time I travel there, as I've done this week, something comes over me. Inside the Beltway, talk can give off the illusion of action. The mouthing of words, however powerful on the printed page or eloquent when spoken, is seen here as equivalent to progress.
President Obama's July 1 speech on immigration has been described as "a very clear call for action" that places pressure on Capitol Hill -- a euphemism for Republicans and wobbly-kneed Democrats -- "to answer." This time, however, the phantasmagoric politics of the city didn't sway me, and the President's speech fell flat. Words, though artfully phrased, can come too late, or be delivered with too little energy, to reach (let alone pass) the tipping point.
As I told the Orange County Register:
He said all the right things [but] I didn’t see the passion in the delivery I would have liked. . . . it was ultimately unsatisfying. It’s always puzzled me, frankly, because I had . . . naively assumed that the son of a Kenyan immigrant would care more, [b]ut I just don’t see the fire in the belly.
There are those in the immigrants’ rights community who have argued passionately that we should simply provide those who are [here] illegally with legal status, or at least ignore the laws on the books and put an end to deportation until we have better laws. And often this argument is framed in moral terms: Why should we punish people who are just trying to earn a living?
I recognize the sense of compassion that drives this argument, but I believe such an indiscriminate approach would be both unwise and unfair. It would suggest to those thinking about coming here illegally that there will be no repercussions for such a decision. And this could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration. And it would also ignore the millions of people around the world who are waiting in line to come here legally.
Who is suggesting that we simply provide people who are here illegally with legal status? Who is arguing that we ignore the laws on the books and cease deportations until we have better laws? Knocking down these straw men won't change the truth.
The President can use executive authority to register and screen people who lack the right to be here and give them, not legal status, but a Notice to Appear for removal proceedings, i.e., a presence under color of law, and a work permit, until we as a nation figure out how to deal with a problem requiring a pragmatic solution that is respectful of the rule of law. On his own, he can also use the power vested in him as President of the United States to provide substantial improvements to what he correctly described as "our creaky system of legal immigration."
While some make the moral argument about the need to earn a living, most fair-minded immigration advocates espouse a different moral argument (that all citizens benefit from the sweat of unauthorized workers and thus all must accept part of the blame and the responsibility to fix the problem without sanctimony).
Taking a page from Jorge Ramos' new book, A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto, the President makes a compelling argument that clearly proves too much:
[Americans know it is not] possible to round up and deport 11 million people. . . . Such an effort would be logistically impossible and wildly expensive. Moreover, it would tear at the very fabric of this nation -– because immigrants who are here illegally are now intricately woven into that fabric. Many have children who are American citizens. Some are children themselves, brought here by their parents at a very young age, growing up as American kids, only to discover their illegal status when they apply for college or a job. Migrant workers -– mostly here illegally -– have been the labor force of our farmers and agricultural producers for generations. So even if it was possible, a program of mass deportations would disrupt our economy and communities in ways that most Americans would find intolerable.
Despite the President's critique of recalcitrant Republicans, of "political posturing and special-interest wrangling" -– and his recognition "that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics," he can curl his pointing fingers around his presidential signing pen and -- quite sensibly -- fix big parts of the "broken" and "creaky" immigration system on his own.