Obama Policy Is Positive Step, But Could Delay Real Reform

June 19, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in US News and World Report on June 19, 2012.

President Obama exercised his executive power to defer deportations for young unauthorized immigrants who can now apply for temporary work permits. Regardless of their legality, the president’s actions carry the miasma of an executive power grab. While the air of legal impropriety surrounding Obama’s action make long run immigration reform more difficult, we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of deferring deportations.

Deferring deportations for young unauthorized immigrants brought here as children allows people who are already American in every way but legally to stay here for a bit longer—perhaps until real immigration reform takes place. Many of these young people do not even remember the nation their parents took them from or speak any language besides English. Richmond teenager Heydi Mejia was brought here by her mother from Guatemala when she was 4 years old, and her knowledge of that country is limited to what she learned from Wikipedia and dinner table chats. She considers herself American.

Both native born Americans and immigrants like Heydi are made worse off by deportation. We lose the benefits of one more free and productive person, and Heydi loses decades of greater earned income, a higher standard of living, and the freedom to live where she chooses. If Americans want to employ, sell products to, and rent housing to Heydi, they should be allowed to without government enforced disqualifications based merely on birth location. Obama’s memo, however temporary and imperfect, at least takes a small step toward relieving the pain caused by our immigration policy.

The last time Obama used his prosecutorial discretion to review deportation cases, his administration promised to stop the deportations of unauthorized immigrants with strong American family ties and no criminal records. Since that policy went into effect in November 2011, Department of Homeland Security officials stopped deportations in a bare 2 percent of the 411,000 cases reviewed. Last week’s memo could be just a repeat of that.

Therein is the crux of the problem. The policy change that Obama introduced was a positive step, but because of his methods we cannot predict how far it will actually go or how long it will be enforced for. The goals of Obama’s memo are laudable but the process could delay real reform.

About the Author
Alex Nowrasteh

Director of Immigration Studies and Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute