MSNBC’s televised town hall discussion with President Obama on Wednesday comes at a critical juncture in the debate over how to best improve our immigration system.
Last week, a federal judge in Texas blocked the implementation of parts of the president’s executive actions on immigration, which would provide deportation relief for millions. And this week, congressional Republicans may recklessly allow the Department of Homeland Security to shut down, endangering our border, cyber security and counter-terrorism operations, in order to register a symbolic protest.
So where are we heading in this debate, and what will the president say later this week? Here are a few things we know:
Obamacare may be a road map. The experience of the Affordable Care Act may be a good guide for what could happen with the president’s reforms in the years ahead. The ACA has been through a controversial 5-6 years. There were ups and down along the way, problems with implementation, legal challenges and intense political opposition.
But almost six years after Obamacare was first introduced, it is looking increasingly like a significant policy and political success. Signups have exceeded expectations this year. Tens of millions of people have seen dramatic improvements in their lives in just the first 18 months of full implementation. The famous “health care cost curve” is bending, and during the first months of the ACA, we’ve seen one of the strongest economic performances from the U.S. economy in the last 20 years. And the public is noticing. New polling shows that a majority of Americans now approve of Obamacare for the first time since this debate began in 2009.
Advocates of reform should draw from the tough but ultimately successful implementation of Obamacare, not only for inspiration for their own work in the years ahead but also to continue to explain to the American people why they are so confident the reforms will work as intended.
The legal and policy arguments against reform are weak. With a full week to review the injunction by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, the Texas justice who blocked the implementation of the president’s reform, the decision is looking more like the desperate political act of a losing side than a sound, sustainable legal opinion. The injunction was granted on a minor technicality and did not attempt to meaningfully challenge the legal theory of “prosecutorial discretion” behind Obama’s executive actions.
In fact, very significant applications of this legal theory regarding other aspects of border and immigration enforcement were not blocked and will continue to be implemented. As this Washington Post analysis demonstrates, the judge’s clearly hastily-written opinion betrayed a shocking and potentially disqualifying lack of understanding of how the immigration system works in the United States. And the injunction overreaches, covering all 26 states in the suit though he cites “harm” in only one, Texas.
That the opinion was so sloppy and narrow reinforces how political the ruling was. Rushed out on a federal holiday just days before the reforms in question were set to take effect, the decision now appears intended to buy some time for Hanen’s ideological allies in Washington who have so far failed to find a way to block Obama’s reforms.
The reason the GOP’s challenge ultimately will fail is that there is ample legal precedent for the president’s actions. And, as with Obamacare, these smart reforms will be good for the nation, boost the U.S. economy and enhance our security. By allowing immigration agents to focus on true criminals and illegal border crossers, the U.S. will become more effective at deterring future unauthorized migrants. Federal and local law enforcement will be freed up to go after truly dangerous criminals – not working moms with kids in public schools.
Important parts of the president’s reforms were not blocked. What is perhaps least well known is that Judge Hanen did not strike down Obama’s far-reaching reforms of the immigration and border enforcement systems, which will continue to be implemented without challenge in the months ahead.
And they are significant. Building on earlier reforms in 2011, the Department of Homeland Security will further focus enforcement resources on those trying to enter the country illegally and undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with serious criminal records. The net effect of these reforms will be to remove the threat of immediate deportation from 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. It will also make it far more difficult for undocumented immigrants to be put in detention without a formal arrest.
Prioritizing immigration and border enforcement in this way will improve the security of communities across the nation while building a more powerful deterrent on our border for those thinking of entering the country illegally. These reforms are smart and humane, and will guarantee that Obama leaves his successor a border and immigration enforcement system far better than the one he inherited – despite years of extraordinary opposition from the GOP.
So what’s next for immigration reform? I am fairly confident the administration will prevail in the courts. The Republicans will back down on their DHS shutdown threat, which recklessly threatens American security in a time of heightened fears. And the president’s reforms will proceed, ending a decade of gridlock, giving the country a better immigration system and millions of people a renewed chance to pursue the American Dream for them and their families.
The lessons of the health care reform fight point the way: years of battle, legal victories and defeats; but at the end, a better America with millions and millions having the chance to make an even more powerful contribution to their adopted home. As Obama is certain to remind us when he speaks Wednesday night, positive social change only comes about through relentless, hard-fought struggle.
Simon Rosenberg is the president of NDN/New Policy Institute, a pro-immigration reform think tank based in Washington, D.C.