Former President Barack Obama’s program protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children was the right thing to do except in the way it was done: by executive order, instead of by legislation. That was more Congress’ fault than Obama’s, but the fact remains that this urgent protection for young people who are here and Americanized was never as complete or stable as it should have been.
A judge’s recent order declaring Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to be unconstitutional may turn out to be a blessing in disguise — the lever needed to get Congress, at last, to provide a permanent path to citizenship for this blameless population. Even in today’s hyperpolarized political environment, it’s a rational and popular enough idea to potentially garner wide bipartisan support.
The deferred-action program was Obama’s temporary solution to one of the most complex immigration issues out there: How to deal with hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their parents, raised in American communities and now living productive lives as students, employees or even soldiers in the U.S. military. Even immigration hawks have tended to understand that deporting these young people to countries they often don’t even remember and whose language they might not speak would be unfair to the point of cruelty.
Yet Congress has stalled repeatedly in dealing with the issue. Obama’s 2012 creation of the program was meant as a stopgap to prevent deportation of young immigrants who met certain standards, including clean criminal records and enrollment in school or the military. It protected those young people for the moment, but never relieved Congress of its responsibility to create a path to permanent status for them.
U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, an immigration hawk, ruled in favor of Texas and other states that argued Obama had overstepped his authority in creating the program. Crucially, the court’s ruling leaves in place protections for the more than 600,000 immigrants currently following the rules under Obama’s executive order. But the ruling, if it stands, cuts off any future enrollees, leaving the threat of deportation hanging like an anvil over their young heads.
The Biden administration is appealing the ruling, as it should, and an earlier sympathetic stance toward young immigrants by the Supreme Court indicates it could well be overturned. But that shouldn’t be where it stops.
As controversial as immigration issues in general can be, polls show wide majorities of Americans — even Republicans — favor granting legal status to the Dreamers, as the program’s recipients have come to be known. Bipartisan legislation that provides a path to full citizenship, if properly crafted without overreaching into other immigration issues, should be a relatively easy lift. Hopefully, the Texas ruling will add pressure on Congress and force it to do what it should have done a decade ago.