Beyond Humanitarian Triage: Why President Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration Can Pave the Way for Comprehensive Reform

U.S. President Barack Obama, pictured during a 2011 visit to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas (User DVIDSHUB, Flickr Commons) Much of the reaction to President Obama’s recently announced strategy on immigration reform has understandably focused on the politics of the president’s decision to implement his plan via executive action. There has been little analysis, however, of the positive—albeit limited—humanitarian consequences of the decision itself, and the opportunity it presents for moving beyond the partisan divide and achieving lasting legislative reform.

It is revealing that while some opponents have challenged the legality of the president’s action, none have questioned its morality.

This is because the recognition that America’s broken immigration system violates the intrinsic human dignity of the migrant is broader than the boundaries that divide Democrat from Republican, who’s up from who’s down in Washington and even citizen from non-citizen in today’s United States.

As the President asked rhetorically in his address from the White House announcing the executive action, “Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms?”

Unfortunately, the United States has been such a nation for quite some time now. Just last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reportedly logged 72,410 removals of undocumented immigrants who claimed one or more children born in the United States. These thousands of families torn apart across multiple countries are among the over two million deportations that have occurred since the Obama administration took office in 2008. As The Economist observed in February of this year, “there are few things about America as vindictive and self-defeating as its deportation machine.”

And that deportation machine wreaks havoc not only across multiple countries but across multiple continents as well. This is why it was no coincidence that President Obama’s executive action to spare all those who legally could be was hailed with headlines from Ireland to Mexico.

The president’s executive action is a triage measure that will shield approximately3.7 million immigrants according to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI). Specifically, the action would protect undocumented immigrants who are the biological parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents from deportation by permitting them to apply for temporary relief through a new deferred action program. MPI also reports that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, launched in 2012 and expanded under the president’s new order, could broaden eligibility by an additional 290,000 persons for a total of approximately 1.5 million persons. In sum, this could mean measures protecting up to 5.2 million undocumented immigrants—essentially half of the roughly 11.4 million undocumented persons that currently reside in the United States.

By taking action, the president both righted a wrong and made this part of the immigration debate res judicata, thereby narrowing the range of issues left to be resolved. Tom Daschle, the former four-term U.S. representative and three-term senator from South Dakota who served as both majority and minority leader in the Senate, understands the legislative process as well as anyone in Washington. In a recent interview with Al Hunt on Charlie Rose, Daschle suggested that President Obama had an obligation to deliver on a political commitment and that his doing so does not preempt action by the Congress. Instead, Daschle went on, the president’s executive action should represent the first installment of a series of reforms that the executive and legislative branches should pursue together, culminating in legislation passed by Congress and signed into law.

Indeed, the essential contours of what would constitute adequate immigration reform have been the subject of broad policy agreement between leaders of both parties for some time. As the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Condoleezza Rice, Ed Rendell, Haley Barbour, and Henry Cisneros argued on the day of the President’s announcement, “permanent reforms can only be made through legislation.” It follows, to borrow the BPC representatives’ words, that “Congress and the president will need to work together to achieve them.”

An independent task force of respected professionals across the political spectrum—including potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush—convened by the Council on Foreign Relations demonstrated that consensus can be achieved. The task force first identified consensus on the problem: that “continued failure to devise and implement a sound and sustainable immigration policy threatens to weaken America’s economy, to jeopardize its diplomacy, and to imperil its national security.” Second, it reached consensus on the solution: issuing a call for a “grand bargain” on legislation to accomplish three critical tasks. The task force’s proposed grand bargain would, first, enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal immigration system. Second, it would ensure that system’s integrity through enforcement mechanisms to dissuade employers and employees alike from hiding the immigration statuses of undocumented workers. Third and finally, the bargain would enable the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to legally live in the nation of immigrants they already call home.

Despite the polarization of the current political environment, the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration reform bill—which passed with over two-thirds of the chamber’s support in June of last year—demonstrates that this consensus can indeed translate into real legislation.

Though the Gang of Eight bill reached the twilight of its slow, painful death in the outgoing 113th Congress, the components that helped make it possible endure. The extraordinary coalition of non-traditional allies supporting the bill spanned, among others, Silicon Valley, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Council of La Raza, the AFL-CIO,  the United Farm Workers, and people of faith across the country. The reform effort has even earned praise from the editorial boards of both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in a rare confluence of opinion. These advocates remain deeply committed to realizing a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and retain significant untapped potential to generate constructive political pressure to pass future legislation.

In a letter written in 1788, President George Washington envisioned a country that “would become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nations they may belong.” The city that bears his name can still make that vision real by transforming the humanitarian triage of the president’s executive action into an opportunity to spur passage of comprehensive immigration reform.