Immigration reform: Forever stuck in limbo

By Bethel Habte / Columnist

Imagine this: In a land of 316.1 million Americans, you are one of 12 million undocumented immigrants. Why you came here, only you know. Maybe there’s another life to which you can return. Maybe this is the only life you know. You live in the shadows of American ideals, but you’re hopeful. Things will change, they say. They never really do, but you wait anyway. Maybe, one day, you will no longer live in limbo. 

Likewise, many American supporters wait with you. Together, in limbo, we wait for progress on immigration reform. 

On Nov. 20, 2014, President Obama delivered an address detailing an executive order for a new immigration policy. 

Some of the initiatives introduced were reminiscent of policies that gained broad support in Congress when immigration reform first became a priority: increased border security, ease of entry for highly skilled workers and deportations focused on criminals and national threats. 

Congress has faltered with uniform support for past initiatives, leading instead to stagnant polarization. 

Through his executive order, Obama introduced a program that would defer deportation of illegal immigrants who have resided in the country for at least five years, as well as those who have children who are citizens or permanent residents. He also expanded on his DACA program. DACA was the result of an executive order in 2012 that deferred deportation of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. It also extended eligibility to arrival prior to January 2010, increased the deferral period to 3 years and eliminated age restrictions. 

None of the reforms introduced through Obama’s executive order offer a path to citizenship or full access to legal benefits. Deferral from deportation would last 3 years and can be renewed. Immigrants would be provided with Social Security cards, which would grant them legal work status, but they would not be eligible for health care under the Affordable Care Act. 

In other words, Obama’s immigration policy offers limbo. 

Obama’s policy is a far cry from what we need to achieve in terms of long-term reform, but it does serve to tide us over until that kind of reform can be achieved. 

For reference, the “common sense law” that he referred to in his speech is a bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate about a year ago. That bill effectively died in the House, as Republicans stubbornly refused to consider it or allow it a vote. 

Indeed, the congressional response that has followed Obama’s executive order has been anything but interested in working collectively towards long-term reform. 

In response to Obama’s speech, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, “By ignoring the will of the American people, President Obama has cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left.”

Boehner’s statement is more dramatic than accurate. Obama’s executive order is certainly legal. His immigration policy is most closely tied to the right of deferred action granted by the Immigration and Nationality Act. The INA is based on the idea of prosecutorial discretion, in which prosecutors can choose how to allocate prosecutorial resources, as well as the priority placed on criminal cases. 

Additionally, Obama is certainly not the first president to take broad executive actions on immigration. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush made similar executive orders in relation to past immigration policies. 

Regardless, it’s beginning to appear to me that Republicans have missed the most important part of Obama’s address. The most significant statement uttered that night was not Obama’s decision to act unilaterally, but, rather, this revelation: “And let’s be honest ­— tracking down, rounding up and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you. It’s also not who we are as Americans.” 

Deportation alone will not fix our immigration system. 

Yet deportation seems to be the extent of any, if existent, immigration reform plan supported by many Republicans, though they’ve certainly had a great deal to say about those proposed by others. 

In a column I wrote for the Fall Welcome Back Edition, I mentioned that our current immigration system was wasting valuable immigrant resources by focusing reform solely on the ideal of legality and over-prioritizing deportation.

I ended the column by stating that I believed the focus of immigration reform should be on expanding legal pathways into our country, as well as working to legalize those who are already here. I still believe that a path to legal citizenship is the best option for long-term immigration reform.

But it can’t be achieved in limbo. 

Bethel primarily writes about social issues and current events for The Pitt News. 

Write to Bethel at [email protected]