Barack Obama has been a terrible president for immigrants. He has been deporting people at record rates. He seems to exploit the issue politically in the most cynical way. What he says about immigration isn’t too bad, however. Here’s his speech today:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody.
This morning, Secretary Napolitano announced new actions my administration will take to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient and more just, specifically for certain young people sometimes called DREAMers.
Now, these are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents, sometimes even as infants, and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license or a college scholarship.
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life, studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class, only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.
Exactly. Of course, one may ask why these particular details are so important. Yes, it’s absurd to deport someone to a country they know nothing about, but it’s almost as bad to deport them to a country they had good reasons– economic hopelessness, political oppression, etc.– for wanting to leave. Yes, DREAMers have friends, have pledged allegiance to the flag, may have worked hard– but plenty of non-DREAMer illegal immigrants also have friends here, have worked (very) hard, and would be glad to take an oath of allegiance if we’d let them. Still, the DREAMers are a kind of wedge in the door, morally speaking. To say that they are not Americans is to lose the right to say that membership in the nation has anything to do with community or a sense of belonging, of common upbringing or values or language or culture etc., and to reduce it to the merest of arbitrary accidents of law. So here’s what he intends to do about it:
Well, today we’re improving it again. Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people. Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.
Now, let’s be clear. This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary, stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is the — it is the right thing to do.
Yes, it is the right thing do. So… why only now? Obama’s been in office for three and a half years. If he can order this now, he could have ordered it at any time. If it’s an election year ploy, that raises further questions. You would think a politician in an election year would have more incentive to pander to voters’ preferences, rather than indulging his own. If so, it would suggest that Obama is less sympathetic to illegal immigrants himself than he thinks the public is. That’s probably over-analyzing it, but I find it puzzling. Of course, it might also be that the political climate is shifting somehow. Maybe Rubio’s immigration plan, and rumors about Rubio as a possible VP nominee have made Obama afraid that Romney will pivot and outflank him on immigration. However, Obama’s speech also suggests a more edifying reason:
And I believe that it’s the right thing to do because I’ve been with groups of young people who work so hard and speak with so much heart about what’s best in America, even though I knew some of them must have lived under the fear of deportation. I know some have come forward at great risks to themselves and their futures in hopes it would spur the rest of us to live up to our own most cherished values. And I’ve seen the stories of Americans in schools and churches and communities across the country who stood up for them and rallied behind them, and pushed us to give them a better path and freedom from fear, because we are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids. (my emphasis)
This sounds almost like a shout-out to Jose Antonio Vargas, and others who are “coming out” as illegal. Henry David Thoreau was overly sanguine when he thought that even one pure and courageous civil disobedient could end American slavery. But I think it is true that when people stand up, in truth, against a bad law, risking themselves for the sake of the right, telling society not to commit injustice for conscience’s sake but not proposing to resist it, in short, engaging in civil disobedience, they can have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers. As I wrote in Principles of a Free Society:
If illegal immigration in the United States does not yet constitute a mass civil disobedience movement, it is not far from it. The large protests that immigrants have begun to conduct raise the visibility of illegal immigrants as human beings, though individual participants do not typically court arrest since illegal immigrants are mingled with sympathetic legal immigrants and native citizens like myself. A satyagraha [Gandhi’s term for civil disobedience, meaning “insistence on the truth”] approach might involve illegal immigrants openly advertising their status in order to court arrest and deportation.
Native-born Americans can engage in civil disobedience, too, by providing jobs and accommodations to illegal immigrants, without an intention to deceive the state if questions are asked. For example, I might choose to sublet rooms without asking to see tenants’ documents.