The Obama Administration again waited for a Friday afternoon to announce a major new policy change — repeating its practice of timing important announcements to reduce media and public attention. The latest change is obviously controversial. The Administration will no longer deport illegal aliens under 30 who came to this country as children — effectively negating part of the federal law. It raises some troubling questions, again, about President Obama assertion of executive power. While liberals again celebrate the unilateral action, they ignore that danger that the next president may also simply chose to ignore whole areas of the federal law and criminal code in areas ranging from the environment to employment discrimination. It is one more brick in the wall of the Imperial Presidency constructed under Barack Obama — a wall that may prove difficult to dismantle for citizens in the future.
Presidents are given extreme deference in decisions on the enforcement of federal laws. It would be difficult for anyone to challenge this policy for that reason. However, that does not mean that this is a good practice — regardless of the merits of specific policy. It is also hard to ignore the obvious political play for Hispanic votes in key swing states. Obama waited for years to take this action and did so with polls showing that Hispanics will likely select the next president. Even some of the more liberal columnists and reporters are acknowledging that this change appears driven by politics.
Obama officials do not deny that they are circumventing Congress. In a recent interview, senior Obama adviser David Plouff told CNN “if congress would act, we would be happy to sign the DREAM Act tomorrow.” Since it has not done so, the White House is going to accomplish the same objection unilaterally.
This is different from past presidents who have not made deportation a priority in their policies. Despite the criticism of Obama, he is certainly no less aggressive on deportation than his predecessors. Indeed, he may be more aggressive in terms of numbers. Presidents like George W. Bush clearly did not push for deportation based solely on illegal status. The Administration, however, was forced to admit this long-suspected policy in court in fighting the Arizona law — stating that it did conflict with federal policy because the Administration did not want mass deportations.
This is different. Here the Administration is implementing a categorical policy not to enforce federal law, which dictates deportation for illegal immigrations regardless of their age. Congress has refused to pass such laws and this is an obvious effort to circumvent Congress — something of a signature for this Administration. Liberals were outraged by Bush’s use of signing statements as a circumvention of Congress. Yet, when Obama broke his promise and started using signing statements, liberals were again silent. Now, he has gone further and (rather than advancing a restrictive interpretation) he has announced that he will simply not enforce the law.
The change could also create a new conflict with states passing tough immigration laws. We are awaiting the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Arizona case where the Administration may lose some ground. The announcement on Friday could be an effort to preempt the decision. If the Administration had already decided to stop deportations, it would look bad to come after the decision and appear to be circumventing both the judicial and legislative branches.
This is part of a pattern for the Administration. For example, the Administration has announced that it will ignore two federal statutes that bar betting across state lines. That effectively legalized Internet gambling. While his Administration claims that it has no choice but to enforce other laws like marijuana enforcement and for years, both DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell laws, it has not hesitated to declare other laws as unenforceable as a matter of policy. Ultimately, it took the same approach to DOMA — after years of defending it. DOMA is striking in that the Administration still refuses to accept that sexual orientation should be treated like race or gender as a category of discrimination. If it did, the refusal to defend DOMA would have been more clearly based on a view that it is unconstitutional. Instead, the Administration made general claims of states rights (that do not apply to areas like medical marijuana it seems) and even more vague references to privacy and equal protection.
What is left is a conflicted approach to enforcement based on the president’s changing views — in the latest case a change that seems motivated in large part by political advantage.
Liberals and civil libertarians were united on such questions in denouncing the circumvention of Congress by Bush. However, once again, there appears to be a blindness to the dangers of this practice when it comes to Obama. What will happen if a President Romney simply declares that he is not going to enforce environmental law or conflict laws or other parts of the federal code? Is the difference going to be simply that he is not Obama? Liberals are losing not just their credibility but principles in these controversies. Our system is based on a careful balancing of power that forces disparate factional groups to reach agreements in the legislative process. That is what brings the stability to our system.
This latest controversy is not about young illegal immigrants. There are strong policy arguments in favor of this change. However, those arguments need to be made in Congress. This should also not be an “after-the-fact” debate following a change late on a Friday where the president simply grants the equivalent of amnesty for hundreds of thousands of people. Polls show a sharply divided population with a majority favoring tougher immigration laws. We have a political system designed to address such divisive issues. It does not always work the way presidents demand. Indeed, the Democrats previously used filibusters and other techniques to block the Bush Administration and how the Republicans are doing the same thing. However, that is the point. Presidents should not be able to simply make federal laws discretionary to their whim or will. This may be a worthy end but it is the wrong means in a system based on shared powers of government.