President Obama urged Congress on Thursday to revive immigration reform, which is not dead but not moving, either. He was talking mostly to House Republicans, though he also urged business, labor and religious groups to “keep putting the pressure on all of us to get this done.”
It’s good that Mr. Obama said “us.” It acknowledges his own role in this continuing disaster.
Much of the responsibility to fix what Mr. Obama calls the “broken immigration system” lies within his own administration. He can’t rewrite immigration laws, but he can control how well — or disastrously — they are enforced. He can begin by undoing the damage done by his Homeland Security Department. Mr. Obama has just nominated Jeh Johnson, a former Defense Department general counsel, to replace homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, who resigned in July. It’s the perfect opportunity for a fresh start. Here is what it might look like:
STOP NEEDLESS DEPORTATIONS The Obama administration has kept up a frantic pace of 400,000 deportations a year, and is closing in on two million. Those numbers are driven by politics, not public safety. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has wide discretion to determine whom it detains and deports. It can retool all its policies to make noncriminals and minor offenders — the people most likely to benefit from the reform now stalled in Congress — the lowest priority for deportation.
The deportation surge is fed by programs like Se Communities, which does immigration checks on everyone arrested by local and state law enforcement, and Operation Streamline, in which border crossers in the Southwest are prosecuted en masse, with little access to legal representation. Mr. Obama turned the dragnet on, and can turn it off. In marches and vigils across the country, protesters have made one plea on deportations to Mr. Obama: “Not one more.” He should heed it.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE CRISIS As he makes the case for immigration reform, Mr. Obama often mentions the economic consequences of failure — jobs unfilled, crops unpicked, investments not made and taxes not collected. He would do well to highlight the human costs of enforcement without reform, in separating families, and violating the civil and labor rights of workers.
Defiant advocates in Tucson, Ariz., recently blocked buses carrying Operation Streamline detainees, drawing attention to the damage done by indiscriminate deportation. In East Haven, Conn., last week, two police officers were convicted of abusing Latino residents, part of an egregious pattern of abuse. There and elsewhere, the Justice Department has done much to investigate and stop illegal policing and civil rights abuses; Mr. Obama should redouble administration efforts to protect the rights of immigrants and noncitizens.
GET BEYOND POLITICS The talk in Washington has focused on how, after the shutdown debacle, Republicans and Democrats might exploit immigration for political advantage. But last week, the genuine immigration crisis intruded, as if from another universe. Busloads of Arizonans — parents, children, students known as Dreamers — lined up outside House Speaker John Boehner’s office, pleading for a meeting and praying for action on reform. Mr. Boehner had no time for them.
The shutdown was a fake emergency. Immigration is a real one, harming lives every day in every state. Mr. Obama has sometimes been resentful when immigrant advocates remind him of his failures. Now, at least, he has invited their pressure.