This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
Take politics out of the equation, and Barack Obama’s decision to unilaterally protect young illegal immigrants gets hard to explain.
The president had three-and-a-half years to contemplate whether he had the power to do what he did Friday. As a fervent supporter of the DREAM Act – which would have gone even further – he clearly would have liked to.
Obama aside, it’s hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t sympathize with law-abiding youths and young adults who were smuggled across the border as children. Most of them have grown up thinking of the United States as home; many would be bewildered if they were dumped back in the countries they were uprooted from.
They are here through no choice of their own, and simple humanity argues for keeping them here if they have obeyed the law, stayed in school or served in the military.
But Obama himself has said that he couldn’t simply snap his fingers and nullify immigration law, even a bad one.
“I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own,” he told the National Council of La Raza a year ago. “That’s not how our democracy functions. That’s not how our Constitution is written.”
Yet now – four-and-a-half months from November, with the Hispanic turnout crucial to his re-election – Obama has discovered he can indeed bypass Congress and effectively repeal a law on his own through a broad public proclamation of prosecutorial discretion.
What the Constitution actually demands is a matter of argument. Earlier presidents also covertly made policy through prosecutorial discretion – though they tended to openly flout Congress in cases of national defense and foreign policy, where the Constitution gave them specified powers.
The political calculus behind Friday’s announcement was transparent. Obama didn’t seem to fear that young immigrants wouldn’t get relief so much as he feared that the relief might come with Republican fingerprints.
The timing appears driven in part by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s proposal for an actual law – approved by two chambers of Congress – that would have provided more solid protection to the children of illegal immigrants. The prospect of a Latino Republican upstaging the president as a champion of Hispanics must have terrified Obama’s campaign strategists.
The result is good. Innocent kids raised in America shouldn’t be sent packing to strange countries.
But it’s possible to do the right thing the wrong way. Partnering with Rubio and other members of Congress to pass a real law would have been the right way.