This week, President Obama finally declared his independence from a suffocating debate over immigration reform that Republicans in Congress had never seriously joined. After waiting too long for the obstructionists to move, Mr. Obama has freed himself to do what he can to fix the broken-down system.
His powers are limited, of course. Only Congress can give immigration the long-term, comprehensive overhaul it so badly needs. A bipartisan bill passed by the Senate a year ago — and strangled in the House — was the best hope for that. But Mr. Obama should do his utmost, within the law, to limit the damage done by an obsolete, unjust system that is deporting the wrong people, stifling businesses, damaging families and hurting the economy.
It starts with giving millions of immigrants permission to stay, to work and to live without fear.
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Mr. Obama needs to scale back the deportation machinery, which he greatly expanded. His decision two years ago to halt deportations of young immigrants called Dreamers was a good first step. Now he should protect Dreamers’ parents, and, if possible, parents of citizen children. His emphasis should be on protecting families and those with strong ties to this country, and on freeing up resources to fight human traffickers, drug smugglers, violent gangs and other serious criminals.
He should end programs that recklessly delegate immigration enforcement to local police. He should make it easier for family members of citizens to seek green cards without having to leave the country for three or 10 years. Through common-sense fixes to onerous visa restrictions, wise use of prosecutorial discretion and new programs to allow groups of immigrants to apply to stay and work legally, Mr. Obama should move the system away from its deportation fixation, and closer toward balance.
Mr. Obama wants to shift resources away from the interior to the border, where tens of thousands of children have recently been detained after fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. He hopes to stem the influx through swifter deportations, but his most urgent priority should be giving these children lawyers and caregivers. While many will probably be sent back, many others will likely qualify for humanitarian protection.
Republicans will howl over Mr. Obama’s solo actions. Let them. Let the party pay a heavy price among Latino and Asian voters for failing to tame its nativist wing, whose only idea for immigration is a fantasy of an airtight border and mass expulsions.
Most Americans find the Republicans’ enforcement obsession unconvincing; polls support the moderation and legalization that Mr. Obama and Democrats have fought for. But fear and panic do respond to stoking, as in places like Murrieta, Calif., where protesters this week blocked buses carrying recent migrants to a Border Patrol center. In a farcical reaction to a concocted emergency, Murrieta’s mayor announced that the city had set up an “incident action plan,” so police and emergency officials could keep a few dozen women and children from destroying his town.
Nobody was even being released in Murrieta. But the mayor urged residents to complain, and in a pageant of ugliness, dozens took action: They waved flags, screamed “U.S.A.!” and turned three buses back.
As the border crisis plays out, public support for legalization will be tested. But Mr. Obama can ease fears if he acts on the belief that millions who are here are a benefit to the country and deserve a chance to stay. Through cynical abdication, Republicans wasted a precious chance to fix immigration for the 21st century. That game is over. The president has moved on. It’s about time.