Asserting the full power of his office, President Obama is expected to announce a set of reforms to the country's immigration enforcement system, a plan that would offer a temporary reprieve from deportation to up to 5 million undocumented immigrants. By taking action through an executive order, the president signals to a fractious Congress, where immigration legislation has been stalled for years, that humanitarian concerns must, in the end, be weighed against the costs of inaction. Despite the political risks, it's the right decision, one that will keep families together and allow many undocumented immigrants a chance to come out of the shadows.
Obama promised executive action on immigration earlier in the summer after Congress refused to take up a vote on an immigration reform bill that the Senate had passed last year. Then, in a political calculation announced at the end of the summer, Obama decided to postpone any action on immigration until after the midterm elections in order to protect a few Democratic senators who were facing serious Republican opponents. That ploy backfired: Most of those Senate Democrats ended up losing their seats, and the move most likely alienated the Hispanic electorate, which has grown frustrated by the political stalemate.
There is, of course, an inherent political risk in acting unilaterally. Republicans will vilify Obama for acting on his own. Calls for impeachment will intensify, a concept that is as absurd as Republicans' refusal to solve the immigration gridlock.
The GOP criticisms, though, are overblown. Every president since Eisenhower has taken executive action on immigration in one form or another. President Reagan, for instance, deferred deportation of 200,000 Nicaraguans. The White House's plan reportedly includes allowing parents of children who are citizens or legal residents to get work permits and protection from deportation, an action that would help millions of undocumented immigrants. It also will address the shortage of opportunities for high-skilled immigrants, allocate extra resources to enforce the border, and thoroughly review Secure Communities, the overreaching immigration enforcement program believed to be responsible for the record number of deportations during Obama's tenure.
The best case against the president taking action independent of Congress relies on the premise that Republicans do plan to pass immigration reform eventually, and that easing up on deportations now would somehow undermine that plan. But, even with executive action, Republican leadership can and should still tackle immigration reform legislation. In an interview with CBS News last week, Obama said Congress still has time to pass a bill, adding that legislation would supersede any administrative orders he might issue. The problem is that neither Speaker John Boehner nor likely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have listed immigration reform as a priority. Any threatening talk coming from Republicans — McConnell cautioned that executive action would be like "waving a red flag in front of a bull," while Boehner said that "when you play with matches, then you take the risk of burning yourself" — lacks credibility in the absence of a real intention to solve the immigration reform puzzle themselves.
The political fallout on immigration will be volatile. But the human cost of inaction — the families upended, the lives disrupted — is much greater.
• Obama plans to protect millions from deportation, issue work permits
• Joanna Weiss: The myths of illegal immigration
• Mike Ross: Redefining the immigration debate
• 7/26: Working to identify immigrants buried in unmarked graves