In Washington, it seems, nothing gets done until crisis knocks at the door. Comprehensive immigration reform, among other things, is one crisis that has been headed this way for the entirety of President Obama’s time in office. But last Thursday evening, the President announced a major move on immigration reform as he outlined details of his executive action that will impact an estimated five million undocumented immigrants.
In a prime time address, the President provided details on an executive action that he says will aid in keeping families intact while shifting attention and resources to arresting felons and beefing up border security.
Reaction to the announcement was swift, passionate and predictable. Republicans, angered, but invigorated for a renewed fight with the White House, immediately took to the airwaves denouncing the plan as everything from unconstitutional to potentially impeachable. Democrats and immigration activists found the plan mostly acceptable and a positive step in this seemingly never ending battle.
“Like all of us, we were hopeful that Congress would be taking action – as it should have,” says United Farm Workers Vice President, Armando Elenes. “Now the President is taking the action that he feels he can take under the law.” The action falls short of what immigration reformers would have liked, including Elenes. But, “it’s very welcome news.”
The action will allow undocumented parents of citizens or legal residents to remain in the country. While the illegal immigrant population includes individuals from scores of countries, the majority of those benefitting from the new policy are from Mexico. For many families, the action lifts the constant fear that a routine traffic stop could result in deportation and indefinite separation from family.
“The workers that I deal with, they don’t have the resources (to fight deportation),” says Elenes. “When you lose a father or a mother, you’re not only losing a family member, you’re losing the primary wage earner. It’s very traumatic.”
Colorado’s Congressional delegation split on party lines over the President’s plan. “President Obama’s immigration plan amounts to one thing, plain and simple, executive amnesty for millions of people living illegally in America,” posted El Paso County Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn on Facebook. “The truth is that President Obama remains the greatest obstacle to immigration reform by treating our broken immigration system as a political opportunity.”
But no one was darker in predicting what might result from the President’s announcement than Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. Coburn, a Republican and someone who says he enjoys a friendship with the President, suggested the country would “go nuts, because they’re going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president,” adding “you could see instances of anarchy.” His prediction, has so far, not come to pass.
The President’s actions have nearly frozen already chilly relations between the White House and Congressional Republicans. Following his immigration announcement last week, Republicans sent unmistakable signals that they are ready to wage their own game of hardball with the President.
“All options are on the table,” says Speaker of the House, John Boehner. That would include holding up all presidential appointments, from Cabinet positons to judgeships. But impeachment, lawsuits, defunding parts of the budget and, perhaps, even repeating last year’s highly unpopular government shutdown are all under consideration by the President’s opposition.
And while Lamborn, Coburn and others in the party decried the new immigration policy, in Colorado there were also Democrats uncertain about the new approach. “I think it’s taken the President too long to act,” says Thornton Representative Joseph Salazar. “There should have been better leadership in this issue all across the board.”
But the Senate did act on immigration reform in June of 2013. By a vote of 68-32, including 14 Republican votes, the Senate passed legislation to overhaul the current immigration system. The bill, which carried a $50 billion dollar price tag, would have doubled the number of agents along the border, completed the 700-mile border fence and mandated employers to check the legal status of all job applicants with the government’s E-Verify system. The measure was sent to the House of Representatives where it died.
Also, in the summer of 2012, Congress passed the Dream Act, which provided conditional permanent residency to certain younger immigrants. In order to qualify, a young person had to be of ‘good moral character’ and a high school graduate. They must have also been in the country for at least five years before the bill’s passage. Two years of military service or two years of college also provided a chance to obtain residency for a six-year period.
The future, as well as the legality, of the President’s executive action have been hotly debated since his announcement. “Deferred action,” the portion of the measure that provides temporary relief from deportation for parents of citizens or legal residents, is within the purview of the President, say his staff and numerous legal scholars. The President “is just doing what countless Congresses have wanted him to do,” said Eric Posner in a recent interview. Posner was once an attorney who served in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration.
But, the President’s action, as Lamborn and others have suggested, does not rise to the level of amnesty, a path to citizenship. Amnesty, as defined by the government, “forgives their (undocumented immigrants) acts of illegal immigration and implicitly forgives other related illegal acts such as driving and working with false documents.”
In 1986, President Reagan signed legislation that actually did provide amnesty for nearly three million undocumented immigrants. The legislation Reagan championed covered immigrants who had come to the country before 1982. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” he said.
But as immigration was boiling over in Washington, another tempest was building in Colorado. In an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper suggested Mexican immigrants were not concerned with gaining citizenship and that it should be removed from any discussions on the subject.
“What’s amazing to me is, a lot of young Latinos, the vast majority don’t care about a pathway to citizenship. They want to be able to get on an airplane and get down to Mexico City and visit their grandparents. And they want to get a job and be able to get paid over the table,” told the Journal. Hickenlooper, who received nearly eighty percent of Colorado’s Latino vote, added, “Why don’t we just take the pathway to citizenship and say, ‘we’re not going to worry about it.”
His comments, to which he has not yet responded but has tentatively planned a community meeting with Latinos to explain himself, set off a storm which has reached the highest levels of his administration and beyond.
The Colorado Latino Forum labeled the Governor’s comments as “disappointing,” while reiterating the idea that a pathway to citizenship is “a key value that must be included” in any immigration reform measure.
“My first reaction was to find out if that is what he really said,” says Salazar, chairman of the legislature’s Latino Caucus. Salazar called the Governor’s words “boneheaded” and based upon a limited perspective.
“What he said is not true,” says the Thornton attorney. “We have kids here who are all but citizens. They speak English. They love this country. They consider themselves American.” Salazar, who recently won narrow reelection to a second term, says the Governor cannot continue to count on Latino support if he does not explain his comments. “We’re open to listening.”