In the words of our second president: We are a government of laws, not of men. This key principle, which places our Constitution above our leaders, set young America apart from the governments of monarchical Europe. Regrettably, President Obama is endangering this venerable tradition by deliberately and systematically seeking to expand executive power well beyond its proper boundaries. In the process, he is trampling both the constitutional authority of Congress and the sovereign rights of the states.
This bold power grab is directed at immigration, which is predominantly a domestic-policy matter, where unilateral presidential authority is inherently weak. Obama’s efforts appear to be driven by crass political considerations, making them all the more unprecedented and unfortunate.
The principles of separation of powers and federalism comprise the foundation of America’s constitutional structure. Separation of powers enables Congress to play a dominant role in domestic affairs and the president to enjoy robust authority in military and foreign affairs. Federalism limits the authority of the federal government and allows the states to wield ample police powers. The Obama administration’s immigration policy provides a vivid example of blatant disregard for separation of powers and federalism.
As its first order of business, the administration canceled state and local law-enforcement programs designed to help federal authorities arrest illegal aliens. Next, it proceeded to rewrite federal immigration laws. A recently leaked Department of Homeland Security memo describes a detailed plan for back-door amnesty for illegal aliens; it explains how to enact “meaningful immigration reform absent legislative action.” Finally, under White House direction, the Department of Justice has challenged Arizona’s new immigration statute — because Arizona actually took existing federal immigration law seriously and decided to enforce it.
In the Arizona case, the Obama administration claims that the president’s constitutional authority over foreign affairs gives him the power to control immigration enforcement within our borders, and that this authority trumps any attempt by Arizona to enforce federal immigration law. What is truly remarkable about this claim is that the Arizona law is entirely consistent with federal statutory law. The conflict arises because the president has conspicuously chosen not to enforce a federal immigration law, even though his first duty is to “faithfully execute” the law.
President Obama could have gone to Congress and asked it to gut federal immigration statutes. He might even have gotten his way, as he did with health care, aided by sizable Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. However, this strategy might not have provided a quick or even favorable political result. So, instead, the White House came up with a vast assertion of presidential power that strikes at the heart of the Constitution.
To emphasize, the real conflict here is not between Arizona and the federal government as a whole. Congress gave state law-enforcement agencies the right to check immigration status. The administration’s effort to strip Arizona of its rights under federal law reflects the view that presidential power over foreign affairs trumps congressional authority over domestic policy. In other words, the Obama administration is challenging Congress and the laws it has legitimately passed.
Furthermore, the administration is trampling on the principles of federalism. States are sovereign governments with their own traditional police powers to protect the safety, health, and welfare of their citizens. The administration ignores this constitutional principle by denying Arizona its law-enforcement prerogatives, based on vague assertions of presidential foreign-policy interests. By that logic, there is no exercise of state prerogatives that the president cannot override all by himself.
President Obama’s actions are unlike anything the American people have seen before. Indeed, they are in an entirely different category than the actions of previous presidents, which were undertaken largely in wartime and prompted by grave challenges posed by foreign enemies. It was during times like these that robust assertions of executive power were most appropriate. The famous “steel seizure” case, in which President Truman tried to assert control over domestic steel production by claiming labor strikes were impairing his ability to pursue the Korean War successfully, was a high-water mark of such efforts, which were invariably countered by resistance from Congress and the courts. (President Truman lost his case.)
Today, President Obama is striving to accomplish a great deal more than President Truman ever dreamed of doing. He is disregarding a clear set of statutory requirements contained in federal immigration law, and he is greatly expanding presidential power — all without tackling a genuine national-security threat. His unilateral effort to reshape America’s immigration policy is eroding the separation of powers, evading checks and balances, and destroying federalism. These actions are hostile to the core of our Constitution.
This president seems committed to running a government of men that rules without regard for the law. A government of laws is what the Constitution requires, and what the American people demand.
– Bill McCollum is the attorney general of Florida and is proposing the Florida Immigration Enforcement Act of 2010.