Throughout the summer, numerous voices across the political spectrum have warned against President Obama taking sweeping executive action on immigration. While the New York Times editorial board has endorsed executive supremacy on immigration, many other publications have been more skeptical, fearing the constitutional as well as immediate practical implications of the president going alone on immigration policy. The Washington Post argued earlier in August that Congressional resistance “doesn’t grant the president license to tear up the Constitution” and warned against ramming through immigration reform via an executive order, points echoed by Charles Lane and Jonathan Chait (neither of whom are exactly fire-breathing right-wingers).
That drumbeat of criticism has continued. The Chicago Tribune recently warned the president not to issue an executive fiat on immigration. Earlier this week, USA Today’s editorial board declared that “Congressional action is necessary both as a sign of a functioning democracy and as a lesson for lawmakers that they can’t ignore their responsibilities forever.” The editorial found that “Congress is the only appropriate venue for adopting such sweeping changes in [immigration] policy.” The editorial board seemed to express support for the goal of “comprehensive immigration reform” but argued that the president could not ram it through by himself.
A recent editorial in the Arizona Republic also slammed the president’s proposed unilateral action on immigration. Like USA Today, the Arizona Republic is sympathetic to immigration “reform,” but it also finds that such action could exceed President Obama’s constitutional authority:
The Arizona Republic has led the way now for many years in passionately arguing for comprehensive immigration reform. No one wants these decent, hard-working people to live free as card-carrying Americans more than we do.
But not this way. This way is folly, Mr. President. Yes, Congress’ failure to act is frustrating. But if Obama takes these actions on his own, it would constitute a higher order of failure.
One of the key points made by the Arizona Republic is that executive action on immigration reform could radically damage the chances of passing immigration reform in future Congresses. Marco Rubio made a similar point in an open letter to President Obama, arguing that unilateral action on immigration could “close the door to any chance of making progress on immigration reform for the foreseeable future.” Senator Rubio was one of the leading figures in getting the Gang of Eight bill through the Senate, so his devotion to “comprehensive immigration reform” cannot be doubted (whether that vision of “reform” is good for the American worker and new immigrants might be a bit more up for debate).
The constitutional implications of President Obama making a power grab on immigration are serious. The humanitarian consequences of such a power grab — how it might empower human traffickers, exploitative employers, and the criminal underworld through incentivizing more illegal immigration — as well as its risks for national security and for the wages of the American worker are also worth noting, however. Moreover, in terms of immigration policy, more and more figures on the Left, Right, and center are finding that sweeping executive action now could kill all hopes of passing immigration reform legislatively.
If the president is serious about advancing a long-term legislative solution to some of the shortcomings of the U.S. immigration system, it would not make much sense to polarize the immigration debate further by taking unilateral action. The White House might calculate that escalating polarization could render some short-term political dividends, but, as an increasing number in the media have come to realize, those dividends might come at the expense of the rest of the nation, our Constitutional inheritance, and the future of sustainable immigration reform.