'We were strangers once, too'

President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House, Nov. 20, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jim Bourg/Pool/Getty)
President Barack Obama announces executive actions on U.S. immigration policy during a nationally televised address from the White House, Nov. 20, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
It's not every day that a leader can make an important, material difference in the lives of roughly 5 million people. It's what made President Obama's announcement last night such a breakthrough moment -- with congressional Republicans unwilling or unable to act, the president found a way to improve the immigration system on his own, changing the national landscape for millions of families.

"We expect people who live in this country to play by the rules. We expect that those who cut the line will not be unfairly rewarded. So we're going to offer the following deal: If you've been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you're willing to pay your fair share of taxes -- you'll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law."

I saw some suggestions last night that Obama extended "legal status" to undocumented immigrants. That's incorrect -- the White House policy extends temporary status to a limited group of immigrants and shields them from deportation threats. They'll be eligible to work legally in the United States, but as Obama noted in his remarks, further action would require statutory changes that only Congress can approve.
Indeed, one of the striking things about the president's speech was the degree to which he anticipated critics' arguments, explaining in advance why they're incorrect.
Republicans will say Obama's been lax on border security, so he reminded the nation that he increased border security and pushed illegal border crossings to a four-decade low. Republicans will say Obama hasn't worked in a bipartisan way with Congress, so he reminded viewers that he worked with both parties on the popular and bipartisan Senate bill. Republicans will say Obama's actions are unprecedented, so he reminded everyone that his new actions are "the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican presidents before me."
Republicans will say Obama's policy is "amnesty," so the president explained, "Amnesty is the immigration system we have today -- millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time. That's the real amnesty -- leaving this broken system the way it is."
All of which is wrapped up with an emotional appeal that dovetails with the substantive merits: "Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too."
Will the policy help? Clearly, yes. Is the policy fair? Indeed, that's the point. Is the policy pro-family? Obviously. But is the policy legal?
The Justice Department last night took the unusual step of publishing a dense, 33-page legal memo, explaining in great detail exactly why the president's executive actions are,  in fact, legally permissible. It created a powerful contrast: Republican have angry tweets; the White House has a 33-page document from the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel citing actual laws, court rulings, and precedents.
Kevin Drum did a great job breaking down the legal debate into easily digestible pieces: Obama has the authority to engage in prosecutorial discretion; the law allows the executive to exempt categories of people from prosecution; and there's ample precedent for these kinds of actions.

...Obama's actions really do appear to be not just legal, but fairly uncontroversially so among people who know both the law and past precedent. Republicans may not like what Obama is doing, and they certainly have every right to fight it. But they should stop spouting nonsense about lawlessness and tyranny. That's just playground silliness.

In the larger context, the president deserves a lot of credit for showing real leadership here. Congressional Republicans clearly aren't impressed, but if they don't like it, they can do as Obama suggested last night and "pass a bill."