Last week, President Obama faced off with a heckler during a speech in San Francisco. “Mr. Obama, I need your help!” shouted Ju Hong, a University of California, Berkeley graduate. “You have the power to stop the deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country.” President Obama responded that he was bound by law to act with Congress. “The easy way out is to yell and pretend that I can do something by violating our laws,” he said.
Both the heckler and the president are wrong. Mr. Hong is incorrect when he says that the president has the power to halt all deportations. President Obama is incorrect when he says that he cannot act on immigration without Congress. In fact, the president has myriad options to ease the heartbreak of deportations for undocumented families.
It is unfair to suggest that the president has not taken concrete steps to help the undocumented. His most significant move to date has been the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which grants relief from deportation – as well as the ability to live and work openly – to young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children. Department of Homeland Security statistics show that the Deferred Action program has so far benefitted over 455,000 young people. More recently, the president has instituted changes to the visa waiver program and put deportations on hold for spouses and children of military personnel.
Yet the number of immigrants affected by these policy changes is dwarfed by the Obama administration’s record deportations. The Washington Post’s David Nakamura estimates that roughly 1100 undocumented immigrants are deported each day. Not only has President Obama deported far more people than President George W. Bush, a New York Times analysis finds that the Obama administration is on track to reach about the same number of removals that than the U.S. did between 1892 and 1997. It is a sad irony that such numbers are the legacy of a president who was elected and re-elected with overwhelming Latino support.
So what can President Obama do, on his own, for undocumented immigrants? Plenty.
The president could relax his administration’s self-imposed deportation quotas. He could end the Secure Communities program, which has served as a virtual pipeline for deportations. Boston Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh just announced that he is against the program, which other state and local lawmakers have criticized for rounding up too many low level offenders instead of dangerous criminals. The president could also let more immigrants qualify for Temporary Protected Status, which gives work and residence permits to immigrants from countries facing crises or violence. In 2010, the Obama administration weighed such unilateral action, before apparently concluding that “meaningful immigration reform absent legislative action” was not politically feasible. There was never doubt, however, about the legality of these policy considerations.
To give relief to undocumented immigrants, the president’s easiest option would be to expand the class of people eligible for Deferred Action. A lawsuit challenging DACA has already been dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, been upheld by the courts, and it would be fully within the president’s executive powers to broaden the program. While the president could not make all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. eligible for DACA, he could certainly protect more people from deportation. If his actions provoked enough Republican outrage, they might just be motivated enough to act on reform legislatively.
True, the president cannot give undocumented immigrants citizenship, a green card, or permanent relief from deportation. But with polls consistently showing that Americans support immigration reform, Obama should not abdicate his moral and political responsibility to formulate his own solutions. And the president who once told a Latino audience to “feel free to keep the heat on me” on immigration can only expect more protestors like Hong confronting him until he decides to act.
President Obama is capable of doing more to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. To paraphrase his campaign catchphrase, Yes, he can.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.