US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

“We're going to fight the president tooth and nail if he continues down this path,” House Speaker John Boehner declared on Thursday, responding to news that the Obama administration was moving forward on immigration reform through executive action. “This is the wrong way to govern.”

Looking to House leadership for advice on how to govern is a bit like consulting a vegetarian for tips on where to get the best steak in town. Especially on the issue of immigration reform, which Boehner blocked just last year. In the absence of legislative action, President Barack Obama has openly and repeatedly outlined his ongoing efforts to find executive alternatives. Over the past few weeks, reports trickled out that indicated he has not only found those alternatives, but is prepared to deploy them before year’s end.

Republicans immediately condemned the president’s impending actions. On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer called executive immigration reform an “impeachable offense.” House Republicans threatened another government shutdown. And Boehner vowed to continue the party’s existing policy of peevish obstructionism.

For all that, Obama has every reason to move forward on executive immigration reform. Here’s why.

1) Legally, Obama is on safe ground. Despite threats of impeachment and congressional lawsuits, Obama can lean on precedent to demonstrate he has the authority to stop the deportation of particular classes of undocumented immigrants. There’s the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, which the administration issued in 2012 to stop deportation of undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children. When it was announced, 136 professors specializing in immigration law confirmed the president had authority not only to implement the deferred action program but to create similar enforcement priorities in the future.

There is also the precedent of former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Both provided fixes to the 1986 immigration law that granted amnesty to about three million undocumented immigrants — but not their children or spouses. The Reagan administration stopped deportation of the children after Congress failed to fix the law, and the Bush administration did the same for spouses when, again, Congress failed to act.

Neither president was impeached.

2) Politically, it’s a winner. While the Republicans have decried executive reform as a usurpation of congressional prerogative, Obama has correctly calculated there is little hope for a functional Congress in his last two years. As a result, any Democratic reform must come through executive action. And the Democrats must move forward somehow on immigration in order to demonstrate that the party’s commitment to reform is more than just election-year rhetoric.

As a bonus, Obama’s move provokes Republican lawmakers, who have a tendency to overreact to immigration reform. In 2005 attempts to reform the immigration system led House Republicans to ram through a draconian enforcement-only bill. That bill, which centered on border security and designated as felons undocumented immigrants and anyone who assisted them, triggered massive pro-immigrant protests. The party’s hard line on immigration also hobbled the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who advocated “self-deportation” and won only 27 percent of the Latino vote. If executive reform leads Republicans to lash out rather than work on legislative fixes, it could further damage the party’s support among the growing population of Latino voters.

3) Morally, it’s the right thing to do. There are millions of people living in the United States who, because of their undocumented status, live under threat of deportation. Some came to the country as children, some as workers, some as spouses. Not only have they built lives in this country, they have become vital components of America’s economy and culture. And increasingly they have done so from the shadows, thanks to the rapid increase in deportations since the early 2000s.

“The discussion in my house was, ‘You don't get noticed. Because if you do something awesome and great, you might get noticed, and if you do get noticed, they might find out that we're here undocumented, and if they find out we could get separated,’” Oscar Hernandez explained to Vox reporter Dara Lind. It was a succinct summation of how undocumented status stunts the American promise, forcing millions of immigrants to shrink their dreams down to the size of the shadow that protects them. For Hernandez, that changed in 2012 with Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals. He now works with the organization Own the DREAM to bring others under the protection of the deferred action program and to secure a path to citizenship for all of the undocumented in America. If Obama’s new initiative can do the same for millions more, it will mark not just a political victory, but a moral one as well.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report